Pawnee Fire forces evacuations in Lake County, California

Above: Pawnee Fire. Photo via CAL FIRE June 24, 2018.

(Updated at 5:56 a.m. PDT June 25, 2018)

A wildfire first reported Saturday afternoon north of the city of Clearlake in Lake County, California  grew substantially Sunday forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate.

CAL FIRE reported at 6:31 p.m. PDT on Sunday that the Pawnee Fire had  destroyed 12 structures, with another 600 threatened. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office issued mandatory evacuation notices for Spring Valley and areas north of Highway 20. A mapping flight at 12:32 a.m. Monday determined that it had burned 8,502 acres.

The fire burned very actively throughout the day Sunday in the Spring Valley area northeast of Clearlake Oaks in Lake County. It was driven Sunday by low relative humidity, strong winds, and above normal temperatures. Sunday afternoon a weather station at High Glade Lookout northwest of the fire recorded 12 to 18 mph winds out of the south with gusts at 20 to 30 mph.

pawnee fire map california clear lake
Map of the perimeter of the Pawnee Fire as determined by a mapping flight at 12:32 a.m. PDT June 25, 2018.

Data from the mapping flight Sunday night showed that the fire was six miles north of the city of Clearlake and three miles northeast of Clearlake Oaks. However the fire could have grown substantially since then.

The forecast for the fire area on Monday is not expected to bring extreme fire weather. The prediction is for temperatures in the high 80s, relative humidity in the low 20s, and 3 to 6 mph winds out of the north in the morning switching to come out of the south and southwest in the afternoon. The changing wind direction could present problems for firefighters.

Several other fires are burning in Northern California, including one 21 miles southeast of the Pawnee Fire just southwest of Hershey, another fire 21 miles northeast of Red Bluff, and a third, 8 miles southwest of Redding.

We will update this article and the map as conditions change.

The Back Story: The Development of the “River of Fire” book

Earlier we wrote a review of John N. Maclean’s book that he officially released today, River of Fire: The Rattlesnake Fire and the Mission Boys. It covers the 15 fatalities that occurred July 9, 1953 on Rattlesnake Fire on the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California. Of those, 14 were members of the New Tribes Mission based at a nearby facility at Fouts Springs. Known to the locals as missionaries, they often mobilized firefighters from their group as needed when fires were burning in the area. The 15th person killed was a Forest Service employee who had volunteered to carry food to the missionaries who were working on a spot fire down in a drainage where they could not be seen by the other personnel on the fire. And, the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire.

Before having a chance to read the entire book, we asked photographer Kari Greer about her experience in providing the images. We also asked Mr. Maclean some general questions about the book and how it was different from Fire and Ashes published 15 years ago.

Their emailed responses are below — first, Ms. Greer:

Maclean’s objective in having me photograph for River of Fire, in my mind was to personalize the events of the Rattlesnake Fire in 1953 for a current audience, to make it visceral and logical. Since it happened so long ago it’s easy to perceive the legend with remote nostalgia. It’s an innocuous-seeming minor drainage and that’s where the warning lies. The chaparral fuel type and the now well-worn route of the race with fire (and subsequent recovery road) are cautionary for any slope at risk for sundowner winds.

I think a visual tour helps the mind process what to look for in other similar scenarios. The lessons are there and Don Will, Daren Dalrymple, Jon Tishner and Jim Barry have kept the hallowed site a laboratory for further introspection and reverence. It’s a heavy place loaded with ghosts who have something to teach us. Their help on-site was invaluable, I could not have seen the nuances without their expertise.

(From Mr. Maclean)


River of Fire has a very different theme from my first account of the Rattlesnake Fire, published in 2003 in Fire and Ashes. That version included the first extended account of the motives of the arsonist, Stan Pattan, a recreation of the events of the fire by more than 30 firefighters – the first semi-formal staff ride at the site – and a detailed check of the credibility of the fire report, which passed. River of Fire updates all those items, but its theme looks to the future: Passing It On.

In the years since Fire and Ashes first appeared the site of the Rattlesnake Fire has been recovered, the old firelines opened, and an explanatory memorial installed. Its lessons are being passed on to new generations of firefighters and others. These days hundreds of firefighters go there every year as part of a formal staff ride. Families of the fallen have visited the site and reconnected to lost parents, friends, and their own pasts. As stories of these encounters came in over the years I added them to the story – sometimes I wouldn’t touch the manuscript for a couple of years; other times I spent weeks in research and writing. One sad effect of the passage of time has been the loss of living memory, as participants and witnesses came to the ends of their lives, sometimes only a few days after talking to me. Earlier this year I looked at the manuscript and realized it had grown enough in bulk and scope to justify an update. Once Kelly Andersson, my longtime editor, and I started to pull it together this spring it became clear the Rattlesnake Fire had turned into a living event, its lessons now bright and alive to a new generation of firefighters. The contrast with what I had found two decades ago – a forgotten, overgrown canyon site fading into history – was extreme.

River of Fire quickly turned into a community project, a telling of the tale through the eyes of people who have lived for decades with the effects of the fire. Three past superintendents of the Mendocino Hotshots – Don Will, Daren Dalrymple and Jon Tishner, keepers of the flame – helped enormously, and many others willingly told their stories. River of Fire contains everything that was in the old version: a precise account of what happened July 9, 1953, and the immediate aftermath. But as Will correctly states in his foreword, the Rattlesnake Fire has become a story of resurrection.

River of Fire would not have happened without the sustained enthusiasm of Andersson, who once lived in Willows herself, frequented Nancy’s Café, and knew some of these people. Andersson kept after me for years until I had the material for a new book. She then made contact with Kari Greer, whose photos bring the new reality crackling to life. She worked with the hotshot superintendents; Chris Cuoco, the meteorologist who provided insight into the weather events of that day in 1953; Jim Barry and others. The result is a deeper examination of a once nearly forgotten story, restored by a community to its rightful place as a landmark in the history of wildland fire.

John N. Maclean releases new book about the Rattlesnake Fire

When I worked at Log Springs in 1968 on the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California I don’t remember much discussion about the catastrophe that killed 15 wildland firefighters only a couple of dozen miles away 15 years before. The Rattlesnake Fire was not a huge campaign fire that blackened tens of thousands of acres and took weeks to contain. It burned about 1,300 acres and was declared under control roughly 40 hours after Stan Pattan threw the match out the window of his green Buick, July 9, 1953.

All but one of the firefighters that perished that day were affiliated with the New Tribes Mission based at a nearby facility at Fouts Springs. Known to the locals as missionaries, they often mobilized firefighters from their group as needed when fires were burning in the area. Some had taken fire training, and others had none. The 15th person killed was a Forest Service employee who had volunteered to carry food to the missionaries who were working on a spot fire at night down in a drainage where they could not be seen by the other personnel on the fire. And, the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire.

book river of fire john macleanJohn N. Maclean, an author well known in wildland fire circles for his previous work, has released a new book about the Rattlesnake Fire, titled River of Fire: The Rattlesnake Fire and the Mission Boys. The official release is today, June 23 at the 75th Region 4 Smokejumper Reunion in McCall, Idaho.

The book builds on the piece about the fire that Mr. Maclean included in his Fire and Ashes book published in 2003 which also had sections about three additional wildland fire topics. The new book adds more details and includes information from, and sections written by, firefighters who have recently worked in the area, including three past superintendents of the Mendocino Hotshots. There are also photos freshly-taken by Kari Greer, a photographer who specializes in wildland fire. Mr. Maclean told us that one of the themes of this book is “Passing It On”, which is the title of the foreword written in May, 2018 by Don Will, Superintendent of the Mendocino Hotshots from 1988 to 1994. The book explains that the Mendocino Hotshots were the unofficial caretakers of the tragedy site for years.

River of Fire has a number very compelling stories scattered throughout. For example, it describes the process of developing the first air tanker that could drop water on a fire. In the early 1950’s there had been some attempts at designing an apparatus that could drop water from an airplane, but everything was crude and not effective. Two years after the fire, in 1955, Joe Ely, the fire control officer on the Mendocino who also helped fight the Rattlesnake Fire, worked with a crop-duster pilot named Vance Nolta who designed a tank with a gate and a dump valve that could be operated from the cockpit. A test of the system on a fire intentionally ignited along a runway at the Willows, California airport was a success. Later that year it was first used on a wildfire near Covelo on the Mendocino National Forest.

There is also a touching story about a young child who lived at the Fouts Springs missionary camp when the fire started in 1953. Her father was killed in the fire, and as she grew up her mother did not talk about him or how he died. But in 2010 she found information about the tragedy online and had to find out more. After driving eight hours from Oregon she contacted the Forest Supervisor’s office in Willows and asked for directions.  Here is an excerpt from one of the later sections of the book:

…Instead, they acquired two eager tour guides, the former and current hotshot superintendents [Daren] Dalrymple and [Jon] Tishner, who volunteered to take them to the site and show them around. “I knew there had to be people like her out there,” Dalrymple said. “It was the best day on the hill I’ve ever had.”

The tragedy led to the development of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders as well as changes in wildland fire training, safety standards, and awareness of weather and fire behavior.

memorial 1953 Rattlesnake Fire
Part of the memorial at the site of the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire. Larry Cregger photo, 2005.

For decades there was not much at the site to identify it or interpret what took place on that fateful day. In 1993 a plaque was installed that had the names of the firefighters that perished, and in 2005 a new interpretive and training site overlooking the area in Grindstone Canyon was built on the old Alder Springs Road. It features exhibits describing the events that day in 1953, and trails lead visitors along the routes taken by those 15 firefighters, and the ones who survived.

The development of the memorial and the maintenance of the trails and the original firelines and dozer lines help to facilitate the numerous visits and staff rides each year. Passing on the lessons learned to new generations of firefighters can help build up their knowledge base about fire behavior and weather and may keep them from repeating some of the unfortunate decisions that led to the deaths of 14 missionaries and one agency employee.

There are, of course, other wildfires where large numbers of wildland firefighters died — the 1910 fires (85 killed), the Griffith Park Fire in 1933 in a Los Angeles City Park (29, most were not firefighters but were pulled from other tasks to work on the fire), Blackwater Fire of 1937 (15), Mann Gulch of 1949 (13), Inaja in 1956 (11), South Canyon Fire of 1994 (14), and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire (19).

We asked Mr. Maclean for permission to use an excerpt from the book (longer than the brief one above), and this is what he sent us:

During the photo shoot for this book this spring, Kari Greer, photographer, and Daren Dalrymple, former Mendocino Hotshot Superintendent, ran into two young men, a former firefighter and a hopeful one, hiking the firelines at the site.

“When Daren and I were up there,” said Kari, “these two guys drove up and chatted with us briefly when we were shooting near the Gillaspy ranch. They said they were headed for the Rattlesnake site and they proceeded on to the Overlook. They must have stopped there, paid respects and read about the fire, and then walked around a bit from there.”

She said the two continued all the way up to Powderhouse Turn, while she and Daren stayed at the Overlook wrapping up the photo shoot. They watched as the hikers made their way along the stand trails and the staff ride locations, spotting them now and then through the brush and across the canyon on the north slope.

“It was interesting to see it to scale,” said Kari, “the size of the guys hiking in the chaparral and their pace as they traversed the landscape. They did the entire thing, even going down to Cecil Hitchcock’s cross at the bottom and clear up to Stanley Vote’s cross at the top. This showed us that they knew the history and were doing the full experience.

“Daren and I made our way up to Powderhouse Turn, and we caught up with them as they were hiking out, coming up the Access Route that goes downhill to the Missionary Spot Fire. We talked a bit more with the two of them and learned that José Gonzalez was here being mentored by Daniel Hartrum, who is a former firefighter, now a teacher. José was working hard; he was wearing a Pack Test Vest and carrying a tool. They told us he was hoping to get hired onto a crew and Daniel was giving him some field experience at the site.”

The book is very well written and edited, as usual for a John N. Maclean product. As mentioned above, much of the content is from the Fire and Ashes book published 15 years ago, but there is a good deal of new text and updated information covering what has transpired in the intervening years. The contributions by the three hotshot superintendents are especially valuable. I recommend this book for Students of Fire and all wildland firefighters for the lessons that can be learned, especially if they have not read the Fire and Ashes book. It would be a good reading assignment before participating in a staff ride at the site.

The black and white photos are helpful to figure out the context and geography. The electronic version expected late this summer or autumn will have Kari’s photos in all their glorious color. It will be available for Amazon Kindle devices or apps, and Apple products.

Related: read “The Back Story: The Development of the River of Fire book”.

The video below, uploaded to YouTube in 2017, shows the memorial site and some of the crosses marking the locations where the firefighters lost their lives.

Other books written by John N. Maclean: The Thirtymile Fire, Fire and Ashes, Fire on the Mountain, and The Esperanza Fire.

New fires in Northern Oregon keep firefighters busy

(Originally published at 8:52 a.m. PDT June 22, 2018)

At least three new wildfires grew quickly Thursday in Northern Oregon after hundreds of lightning strikes pounded the area Wednesday. The largest blaze is the Boxcar Fire just south of Maupin which is burning on both sides of Highway 197. Officials estimate Friday morning that it has burned 7,000 acres, but satellite imagery from 3:06 a.m. PDT on Friday, indicates, very, very unofficially, it has exceeded that by  several thousand acres. A Type 2 Incident Management Team has been ordered.

map fires northern Oregon
The red dots indicate heat detected by a satellite at 3:06 a.m. PDT June 22, 2018.

The Graham Fire is threatening structures 12 miles southeast of Madras, Oregon south of the Metolius River arm of Lake Billy Chinook.  Numerous residences in the Three Rivers Subdivision are under evacuation orders. The fire has burned approximately 2,000 acres. According to an announcement by the Oregon State Police the Graham Fire as been declared a conflagration by the governor of Oregon. This clears the way for the State Fire Marshal to mobilize firefighters and equipment to assist local resources battling the fire.

A third fire has grown to a significant size nine miles south of the Boxcar Fire, just west of the intersection of Highways 197 and 97. When we obtain more information about the fire we will update this post.

Honor Guard personnel from wildland fire agencies represented at Family Fire Weekend

The annual event commemorates fallen wildland firefighters

Above: Honor Guard representatives at the Family Fire Weekend in Boise last month. USFWS photo.

At this year’s Family Fire Weekend organized by the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, representatives of honor guards from firefighting agencies participated in special ceremonies at the national Wildland Firefighters Monument. The event was held at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise May 19 and 20, 2018.

Honor Guards from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection presented colors to open the event on Saturday. Three bagpipers – traditionally used to honor fallen firefighters and police offers – accompanied the group. Honor guard members then interacted informally with other participants. On Sunday, the interagency honor guard led a procession of families to the Wildland Firefighters Monument and laid flowers on individual markers commemorating deceased members of the wildland fire family.

“This was a good opportunity to honor the fallen, including our Service comrades commemorated at the monument,” said Chris Wilcox, Branch Chief, National Wildlife Refuge System Fire Management headquartered at NIFC.

honor guard fire family weekend boise firefighters
Members of the USFWS Honor Guard at the Wildland Firefighters Monument lay flowers on the commemorative marker for Richard S. Bolt, the first FWS employee to die in the line of duty while fighting a wildland fire. (left to right) Mike Koole, National Bison Range; Bruce Butler. USFWS photo.

In addition to firefighters who were killed in the line of duty, the monument has markers for some fire management employees who died of other causes — for example, Shane del Grosso, the USFWS Mountain-Prairie Region Fire Management Specialist based at Huron South Dakota who died by suicide in 2016.

The suicide rate among wildland firefighters has been described as “astronomical”, so it could be a stretch to assume a suicide is not, at least to a degree, a line of duty death.


Forest Service releases recruitment videos

Above:  Screen grab from U.S. Forest Service recruitment video featuring Johnny Walker.

The U.S. Forest Service has released four videos that appear to be designed to entice more people to apply for wildland fire jobs within the agency. Considering the allegations of sexual harassment within the agency during the last two years it is interesting that three of the four people featured in the videos are women.