The Happy Camp “megafire” that blackened over 134,000 acres in northwest California in 2014 is not out. Last weekend firefighters found four small areas that were still burning inside the fire perimeter. During normal weather conditions snow and rain in the winter would usually fully extinguish a wildfire, but the drought and warm weather has allowed some areas within the Happy Camp Complex to continue to burn. There was no indication that the small hot spots were any threat to cause the fire to consume additional acres. Fire managers have re-activated the InciWeb page for the fire.
Florida Governor vetoes pay increase for state firefighters
Florida Governor Rick Scott on Tuesday vetoed a bill containing $1.5 million for state wildland firefighter pay increases that Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam had requested. Some Florida firefighters complained earlier this year that they are “grossly underpaid”, and that their salaries are comparable to cafeteria workers.
Drone grounds air tankers over the Lake Fire
A “hobby drone” spotted over the Lake Fire east of San Bernardino, California grounded firefighting aircraft that were working on the fire Wednesday. The drone was seen flying over the Onyx Summit area around 5:30 p.m., Cal Fire officials say.
A collision between a drone and a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft could be fatal if it damages the windshield, the engine, props, or rotors.
More evacuations on the Lake Fire
Late Wednesday night, June 24, the San Bernardino County Sheriff Department initiated a mandatory evacuation for the Burns Canyon and Rimrock areas. The fire spread significantly to the east on Wednesday. More information at Wildfire Today.
Calgrove Fire north of Los Angeles
The Calgrove Fire burned 398 acres Wednesday afternoon near Santa Clarita, California. Fire Aviation has a video of one of Erickson Aero Tankers’ DC-7s making a retardant drop on the fire. The aircraft, Tanker 60, is sporting a brand new paint job.
While Rae Brooks was assigned to the Happy Camp Complex of fires in northwest California she wrote this story about a crew from Saipan that was working on the fire. The photos were taken by Kari Greer.
Saipan firefighters usually battle scrubby mango and banana tree fires that last a day or two and burn less than five acres. For a month this summer, 15 firefighters from the tiny Pacific island broke in new boots while working on major wildfires in northern California.
The cold, dry night air, the 16-hour work days and the new boots took their toll, but the Saipan crew still raved about their month-long assignment.
“We all have busted-up feet, we’re sick, but we loved it anyway,” said crew member Derek Gersonde. “It’s a great learning experience.”
The Saipan crew flew to California in mid-August as part of a U.S. Forest Service program that brings wildland firefighters to the U.S. mainland to help out when fires are active and resources stretched. In a matter of days, the crew switched abruptly from their sea-level home of sandy beaches and coral reefs to the rugged mountains of northern California.
After being issued wildland fire-fighting gear — and buying wildland boots, which aren’t stocked in Saipan stores — they started building line at the French Fire on the Sierra National Forest.
Crew boss trainee Alle Recor found the crew tended at first to operate on “island time” and lacked the sense of readiness of the wildland world. On Saipan, fires are close by and easy to reach. But, with a little coaching, that soon changed, said Recor. She found the crew motivated, and eager to have fun and get the job done.
Thirteen of the 15 crew members, who range in age from 22 to 48, work primarily as structural firefighters and are qualified medics for the Saipan Department of Public Safety’s Division of Fire. Although wildland firefighting was a new world, the crew understood fire behavior from their structural background, Recor said. Two others were part of a 2008 Saipan crew that fought wildland fires in California
The crew’s fitness and ability to learn new skills quickly impressed crew boss Tyler Van Ormer, who normally works as a battalion chief with the National Forests of Mississippi.
“The guys catch on so quickly that sometimes I forget how green they are,” said Van Ormer. “You only have to show them once and it’s like they’re old hands at it.”
When Van Ormer got word of his assignment, he had to search Google to confirm the island was actually part of the United States. Saipan is the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, three-quarters of the way between Hawaii and the Philippines. Instructors from the western United States travel to Saipan each April to provide basic wildland fire-fighting training. Selection to the wildland crew is competitive for course graduates. While wildfires do occur on Saipan, which is smaller than Rhode Island, they are usually caught quickly.
“It’s such a small island that a fire usually runs into a structure and slows down,” said Gersonde. “We don’t have these huge vast mountain ranges that just blow up. You come here and see how fast a fire can run.”
After the French Fire, the crew spent two weeks at the Happy Camp Complex on the Klamath National Forest.
To help hone their practical firefighting skills, five of the Saipan crew embedded with the Sierra Hotshots and some of the hotshots worked with the Saipan crew. The hotshots emphasized safety and proper technique. After a break, the crew returned to Happy Camp for a second stint. They flew home Sept. 17.
Crew boss Van Ormer lauded the Saipan crew’s work ethic.
“They’re disciplined, they’re nice, they’re polite,” said Van Ormer. “If they don’t know something, they ask. I’ve never heard a complaint. They’re the easiest guys I’ve ever worked with.”
The organizational structure behind fighting a big fire boggled the Saipan crew. When they returned to the Happy Camp Complex, 75 crews, 14 helicopters, 108 engines, 20 dozers and 50 water-tenders were working on the fire, which now sprawls over more than 200 square miles.
The entire island of Saipan is only 1,400 square miles.
After exposure to large-scale fires, some crew members find themselves contemplating a new career path in wildland firefighting on the U.S. mainland.
“A lot of us have it on our minds,” said Gersonde.
The Happy Camp Fire Complex in northwest California posted this video on YouTube, describing it like this:
The Fire Fight at Scott Bar. This was originally shown at a community meeting in Fort Jones, CA for the residents affected by the #HappyCampComplex. Photos by Kari Greer. Additional photos can be found at Flickr.
The fire is listed today at 107,359 acres with 30 percent containment. A Fire Weather Watch is in effect through Friday morning for strong winds and low relative humidity.
Mentoring young firefighters who have the potential to become future leaders is one of the more important responsibilities of seasoned wildland firefighters. Of course the same principle applies in other fields as well. The award winning actor Kevin Spacey has been doing this for years through his Kevin Spacey Foundation and by leading workshops to cultivate emerging artists in the performing arts.
Jack Lemmon – who was my mentor – passed along his philosophy of “sending the elevator back down” and so I am continuing to do exactly that through the work of my Foundation.
Happy Camp Fire Complex achieves Megafire status
The huge fire on the Klamath National Forest continues to work its way across the landscape of northwest California. The Incident Management Team reports it has now burned 105,194 acres, crossing what we call the unofficial threshold of 100,000 acres to obtain the Megafire label. The Team is calling it 30 percent contained.
No residences had been damaged or destroyed on the fire until Monday, when two burned in the Scott River Road area. One of those belonged to 75-year old Nancy Hood who has been continuously staffing a fire lookout for 56 years on the Klamath National Forest. A fund has been established to help Ms. Wood in her time of need. We posted more information about the effort earlier today.
Smokejumpers warn about link between climate change and wildfires
A group of seven Montana smokejumpers have written an opinion piece that was published in the Missoulian.
Below are some excerpts:
…Scientists say that climate change has implications for wildfire danger. We believe them. Since the 1980s, Montana’s wildfire season increased by two months while average global temperatures have steadily trended upward. Climate researcher Steve Running has summarized the data this way: “Since 1986, longer, warmer summers have resulted in a fourfold increase of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986.” – Science, Vol. 13:927 (2006).
Drought caused by warming temperatures exacerbated the recent pine beetle infestation, which is 10 times larger than any previously recorded. Millions of dead trees provide more fuel for fires and create more risk for those on the front lines.
We know that many Montanans share our concerns about rising fire danger. While aggressive intervention in wildfires will always be needed, we also need prevention strategies – and that means dealing with climate change. Preventing climate change isn’t possible, but limiting climate change is.
Montana has abundant clean energy resources such as wind and solar power that can provide significant statewide economic benefits. We need prevention strategies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to decrease carbon pollution from the largest point sources – coal-fired power plants. We can create good-paying jobs in clean energy. We can protect our climate and our wildlands, and we can save lives, property and jobs in doing so.
The person who holds the record for staffing a fire lookout tower for the longest period of time in an unbroken span in one National Forest lost her home in the Happy Camp Fire Complex on Monday. Nancy Hood had to evacuate the Lake Mountain Lookout on the Klamath National Forest a few weeks ago when it was threatened by the fire. As she left, the tower was wrapped in fire shelter material to protect it from the flames. Then Ms. Hood had to evacuate her home at Scott River Road in northwest California when the fire spread in that direction. Her house was destroyed on Monday along with one other residence and two outbuildings.
An effort is underway to help Ms. Hood in time of need. Funds are being collected at GoFundMe.com where anyone can donate to an account set up for her.
Ms. Hood, 75 years old, is in her 56th year of working as a fire lookout. In 2011 an article in the Mail Tribune said, “Her unbroken span as a fire lookout in one forest is believed to be the longest in the history of the U.S. Forest Service, according to both the agency and the national Forest Fire Lookout Association”.
Below is an excerpt from an announcement the Klamath National Forest published when Ms. Hood received the Gene McGaugh Memorial 2012 Lookout of the Year Award.
“The Klamath National Forest is pleased to announce Nancy Hood as the recipient of the 2012 Gene McGaugh Memorial Lookout of the Year. The recipient of this annual award is selected by lookout and fire prevention personnel from multiple agencies in the Siskiyou County area.
“Nancy is a prime example of someone with a deep passion for serving the American people by caring for the land,” said Klamath National Forest Supervisor Patty Grantham. “We are proud to have people like Nancy watching over and helping to protect national forest and other lands alike.”
Hood has been working on the Klamath National Forest as a Fire Detection Lookout for 55 years. She began her Forest Service career in the summer of 1959 while still a Mechanical Engineering student at Sacramento City College. After that summer out in what she sees as the steep and rugged paradise of the Klamath, Hood began searching for a life-long career as a Fire Detection Lookout.
Hood has served at Lake Mountain Lookout since 1992, the oldest lookout in the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service. It was originally constructed in 1911/12 and in 1996 was placed on the National Historic Lookout Register. The basement is original to the structure, while the “cab” on top of the structure is “new”, dating back to 1933.
Hood has had an influence in the training of many new lookouts during her lengthy career. “I really try to impress upon them to learn the country – learn your area first, expand out to the districts next to you and just keep up with the looking,” she said. ”
Smoke from Happy Camp Complex continues to plague residents of northwest California
The Happy Camp Complex of fires in northwest California continued to expand on Friday, adding another 5,660 acres to bring the total up to 88,546 acres. The Incident Management Teams are calling it 25 percent contained. Another spot fire across the Klamath River and Highway 96 burned about two acres before it was knocked down north of the intersection of the highway and Scott River Road.
The Happy Camp area is infamous among wildland firefighters and locals for the inversions that trap smoke and keep it from dispersing. Some firefighters, after spending a couple of weeks in the polluted air, return home with respiratory problems that can linger for weeks or months.
The air quality agencies recognize the problem, of course, but there is little they can do about it other than inform the public about how bad it is. The chart below warns that during the three day period five communities had or will have “unhealthy” air to breathe for at least one day: Seiad Valley, Happy Camp, Somes Bar, Orleans, and Weitchpec. Two others, Hoopa and Willow Creek, were in the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (USG)” category.
Yesterday — Winds pushed smoke to the Southwest which impacted the communities of the lower Klamath, Salmon, and Trinity River drainages. Smoke pooled into the valleys at night and kept smoke concentrations high. The forecast change in wind direction was delayed and has yet to occur.
Today — Smoke is predicted to travel southwest down the Klamath and Salmon River drainages in the morning hours. By afternoon, smoke will change directions and head eastward to the Scott and Shasta Valleys. Smoke will pool in valleys and drainages overnight.
Tomorrow — Weather will be similar to the previous day. Smoke is forecast to pool into valleys and drainages with low dispersion. Communities to the west of the fires may experience improved conditions as an onshore flow pushes the smoke slightly westward.