Incident Management Team releases information about the origin of the Tamarack Fire

The fire crossed US Highway 395 Thursday afternoon

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9:10 p.m. PDT July 22, 2021

Tamarack Fire map
Map of the Tamarack Fire July 22, 2021 before it burned across Hwy. 395. The time the data was current is not certain, but may have been early afternoon PDT July 22, 2021.

On Tuesday the Tamarack Fire burned from California into Nevada, and Thursday afternoon it made another big push to the east and hit US Highway 395 with some intensity north of Holbrook Junction. At first it was just a spot fire across the road but it grew very rapidly and at 4:10 p.m. aerial firefighters estimated it had burned 2,500 acres east of the highway.

Several large air tankers including a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker assisted firefighters on the ground in an attempt to stop the spread of slopover across the highway.

Tamarack Fire crosses Hwy 395
Tamarack Fire crosses Hwy 395 in the afternoon of July 22, 2021. IMT photo.
Tamarack Fire
Tamarack Fire as seen from Hawkins Peak, looking ENE at 9:20 p.m. PDT July 22, 2021.

The Incident Management Team has created an interactive map that at some point is supposed to have evacuation information for residents.

2:32 p.m. July 21, 2021

Tamarack Fire
Tamarack Fire, looking northeast from Hawkins Peak at 2:17 p.m. PDT July 21, 2021.

The Incident Management Team that is suppressing the Tamarack Fire posted on InciWeb their view about how the fire was managed during the first 12 days after it started. The statement was presumably approved by the U.S. Forest Service, the jurisdiction responsible for suppressing and/or managing the fire which was on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

“The Tamarack Fire on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest was discovered on July 4,” the statement says. “At the time, 23 other lightning fires were burning.  It was a single tree burning in the Mokelumne Wilderness on a rocky ridgetop with sparse fuels and natural barriers to contain it. The steep, rugged, and remote terrain presented challenges to safely suppress this wilderness fire.  With several higher priority fires in the area and due to the remote location, the sparse fuels and natural barriers, and the concern for firefighter safety, the decision was made to monitor the Tamarack Fire.”

“The Tamarack Fire was monitored daily via air and fire cameras and exhibited very little fire behavior until Friday, July 16 when fueled by extreme winds and low humidity, it progressed rapidly downslope and spread throughout the evening. With this rapid change in the fire, fire resources were dispatched on Friday, July 16. Additional firefighting resources were also ordered, including very Large Air Tankers (VLAT), Single Engine Airtankers (SEATS) and helicopters.”

Below is a still image of a Forest Service Facebook post with a video of the fire when it was a quarter acre on July 10, six days after it started. “Fire poses no threat to the public, infrastructure, or resource values,” they wrote.

Tamarack Fire Facebook July 10, 2021

The Tamarack Fire spread further east on Tuesday, crossing the state line from California into Nevada. From its origin, it has now spread 15 miles northeast and 10 miles to the north, burning 10 structures and approximately 40,000 acres.

To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Tamarack Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

41 thoughts on “Incident Management Team releases information about the origin of the Tamarack Fire”

  1. The State of California on July 4 was in the grip of a record setting drought. The week of July 4th northern California and elsewhere was in the grip of an epic heat wave. Fire danger / burning conditions may have already reached unprecedented levels for July by then. Extreme at best. Yet they “monitor”.

    As an agency they routinely exhibit indifference at best, or negligence at worst.
    Are they trying to say it was still a quarter-ish acre in size when it exploded on the 16th? Maybe sometime between the 4th and the 16th, the fire might have grown to 10, or 100 or 500 acres and been deserving of something more aggressive than “monitoring”, considering the weather and fuels conditions. But nope. They “monitor”.

    To make matters even worse, since my strike team arrived in base camp the evening of Sat the 17th, the supervision and management of the Tamarack has been in “transition” constantly. Three management teams between Sat and today, Wed the 21st. Three teams in 5 days!! What kind of ridiculous system operates like that?

    And consider if you will, how many hundreds of firefighters are risking injury engaged in a fire of this current size. How many millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent. How much private lands are being destroyed. How many hundreds of people are being evacuated, and the dozen or so to date have lost everything. All because the HTF chose to “monitor”.

    Heads should roll. Taxpayers and firefighters should demand accountability.

    Fight fire aggressively, while providing for safety first. Cheers

  2. Yep…SJs ….a couple local VFDs, 1 or 2 SEAT drops, and few bucket drops.
    BLM would have jumped this one in current RH, winds, and temps
    No monitor about it….this should have a very heavy AAR….problem is….fingers are pointing and Corrective Action Procedures probably are not even given a thought

  3. Ok, as I am a retired local gov FF, my experience is limited to evaluate such decisions, BUT it would seem that the current, short, and long range weather forecasts would have indicated a different strategy. I was up in similar country and altitude and it was hot and getting hotter with no break in sight. A mere local gov chief officer with a SOF(line), STEN, and DIVS(T) card like me could look at his phone and know that the potential for serious growth was high.

  4. As I have said before – a simple, perfect 2-manner (smokejumper). In fact, 2-3 firefigters delivered by parachute or helicopter or hiking in could handle this easily. Especially with a small lake (water supply) near by.

    High probability the decision was made because they thought it was a good wildfire to let burn (manage for resource benefits) and it back fired.

  5. This whole story negates allllll the training about keeping fire small, especially with RHs as low as they were, winds, location in the backcountry Monitoring in the spring or fall with a little precip activity might have been a better “monitoring schedule.”
    Planning Level 4 and 5? Back to S190, S290, and S390. Ten structures, 40K acres and crossing State borders?
    Back to Forestry school with these guys in the decision making chair and maybe a little hard labor collecting seed, hand planting the seedlings and MONITORING their growth might the proper monitoring that these GS folks need for an assignment for them…….cuz fire and some of their quals, apparently, isn’t their forte

  6. Every time I read the July 10th USFS situation post of the Tamarack Fire and look at the accompanying photo of the fire my heart sinks. The statement “Fire poses no threat to the public, infrastructure or resource values” is pure hogwash. We are in a real climate crisis and severe drought conditions are now the norm for the foreseeable future. We no longer have the luxury to think or behave in that manner. I began my USFS career in September 1970 as a grunt sawyer on the Los Prietos Hot Shots (LPNF) during an extended fire season in Region 5 and beyond. I came in at the tail end of the ’10 a.m. policy’ which sought to extinguish all wildfires by the following morning. In 1971 that policy was modified to “…containing all wildfires to 10 acres or less by 10 a.m. of the following day.” Within a year or two that policy was dismissed as agencies integrated towards the concepts of Natural Fire Fire Management Programs. This coincided with the end of the Large Fire Organization (Fire Boss, Line Boss etc.) and we transitioned to the Incident Command System (ICS). I remember this as a somewhat chaotic period for USFS fire management, likewise I sure for the BLM, NPS CDF and other sister agencies.
    My last large fire assignment came during the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 and I retired in 1991.

    The Tamarack Fire started from lightning on July 4th and smoldered around under a heavy conifer canopy in a steep, rocky environment before it came roaring out on July 16th. The site conditions described by early news release were similar to conditions that Hot Shots, Heli-Shots, Smoke Jumpers and initial attack capable resources are trained to deal with: Spike Out, Contain and Control the wildfire. Dangerous? Yes. Risk Free? Nope.
    The fire is now over 39,000 acres.
    The fire agencies should revisit the concept of the “10 a.m. fire policy.”

  7. Agree. And let’s just rename this horrific debacle “The One Tree Fire”.

  8. Typical FS propaganda in the statement released by the IMT. Maybe some of the public buys it, but nobody with any fire sense does. Year after year, it keeps happening and nobody is held accountable—or at least changes the policy some. No way the FS can sugar coat this. Hell an engine crew would have probably loved to hike into that fire—beautiful country, and the location of the fire didn’t look threatening tag all. Those were always the best fires–2 or 3 days to put them completely out and then hike back out. Nothing better, IMO.

  9. Looks like an attempt to soften opinions and maybe garner a little support/buy in with this press release did little…Granted this is a tough crowd….lol…….
    I would like to ask the IC off the record what he/she thinks, I guess waiting for the USFS to just come out and say we errored in our judgement is going to have to wait….

  10. looks like any old jump/rappel fire ever. Despite being PL5, there were plenty of aerially delivered firefighters ready and available to put it to sleep that first week but someone chose not to. Happens all the time actually. Circled many a fire like that from the air with a full load on board and had the DO tell us to carry on… sometimes it’s a good decision and sometimes it’s not.

  11. there are some misstatements in this article. the fire actually began to show signs of life on thursday the 16th. it started putting up a smoke column and had some pretty good heat in it. enough so that my son and i went up to poor boy ridge to observe it. there was a helicopter doing recon at that time. the fire was several acres in size at that time. the fire was clearly coming to life and withthe downslope afternoon winds this area experiences i believe that the usfs should have used water drops to at least take some heat out of it. i am not trying to monday morning quarterback this thing but i do have 26 years of experience in the fire service.

  12. Wonder if they will use the same PR firm that they used after Los Alamos?

  13. The article says the fire was on a ridgetop, yet the photo shows a depression allegedly with a small lake to contain the fire. Which is it?
    Were the winds predicted?

  14. BS. Its easy for you guys to point fingers from your keyboards but have you looked at the UTF (unable to fill) reports lately? Every day multiple requests for engines, crews, modules, heavy equipment bosses, helicopter crew members, i.e. on the ground firefighting resources, are going unfilled because they are not available. Meanwhile the Bootleg fire alone chews through 40,000 – 50,000 acres a day despite having over 2,000 personnel assigned.

    Big picture is that as of today we are looking at 35,975 fires YTD versus the 10-year average of 32,466, with 2,680,600 acres burned versus the 10-year average of 3,482,174 acres burned. This means there are above average fires year to date but below average acres burned. So it can be concluded that firefighting resources are keeping fires smaller despite being stretched.

    I get this situation with the Tamarack is bad; but if you guys are so good and smart, my suggestion is to step away from your computers, put on your boots, grab a tool, and get to work.

  15. The National Situation Report gives a number for the year to date acres burned, but unfortunately it includes Alaska which is extremely variable. Fires there can be very large, burning for weeks or months usually with little to no suppression. In the last 10 years the acres burned in Alaska ranged from 181,169 in 2020 to 5,111,404 acres in 2015, with the higher number being 28 times the lower. In 2015 more acres burned there than in the other 49 states combined. Therefore, a year to date average that includes Alaska is virtually meaningless if you want to draw conclusions about the status of the wildfire season in the lower 49 states.

    More info.

  16. Back in the 70s, for naturally occurring fires in designated Wilderness Areas the “Let Burn” thing was supported by many and that seemed mostly just fine. Well, that was a very long time ago. Back then few if any people ever imagined what loomed ahead with global warming. We could be in the middle of another war we can’t win right here in our own West. If we don’t want every tree and bush to eventually burn, our natural resources need to be fought for with the same forces and finances as any other war. I wish the best of luck to all of you who are in on the fight.

  17. Having worked in wildland fire for 52 years and counting, I know that agency fire managers make good decisions at least 98% of the time. That’s the number of fires that are caught on initial attack. The other 2%? Don’t judge them until you’re standing in their boots. You don’t know what issues they were facing and what factors they had to consider. I can say with certainty that they were doing what they thought best. If any of you are perfect and have never made an error in judgement when faced with incomplete information about what future conditions will be, step forward and volunteer to be the next Chief of the Forest Service. Until then, listen to Henry above. He knows what he’s talking about. As for the comment that nobody fights fire anymore, tell that to the 20,000+ men and women currently working long, hot hours on the firelines and in the fire camps across the West. They just may have a different opinion.

  18. Henry,
    I feel I have at least earned the right to voice my opinion, yes tough decisions have to be made all the time and not all turn out in our favor that is the very nature of this business.
    I don’t believe for one second that a rotor wing was not available to make a few drops, most of the time monitor fire never cause a real big deal like this one has, however once in a while they rear their ugly heads and kick us side ways like this has, like Storm King did those many years ago.
    I whole heartily disagree, more could have been done, I may be mistaken but there was no suppression action taken, now if some action would have occurred well then okay.
    I am just a retiree that still has an opinion about things, we can disagree, it’s okay.
    As a young manager I may have made a similar decision at the front end of my career in management, but my later years I would have taken action if at all possible….PL-5……Just saying……Stay safe out there…..

    Eye witness accounts do not line up with the black and white…..just saying……

    For me I just want someone to to be transparent with the decision making process, this looks like many other canned responses I have seen………I don’t know these folks and it’s not my place to be judge and jury….Just my opinion is all…….Peace….

  19. The statement from inciweb is partly helpful.

    It does help with context to know of the other potential fire starts going on, and the highlights of operational safety considerations. The particular portion, “..exhibited very little fire behavior until…” is disappointing to me. For most of us we immediately think of fire order 3. It is half of it. Ugh.

    3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire. Now maybe the current behavior was the EXPECTED behavior due to “sparse fuels and natural barriers to contain it”. Obviously there’s more to fire behavior that fuel arraignment.

    1. Keep informed on fire weather conditions and FORECASTS. Was there predicable weather that would have made the condition of “sparse fuels and natural barriers to contain it” less important to expected behavior?

    It seems possible with fixating on the word “monitor”, and highlighting of the favorable fuels arrangement situation; maybe some unfortunate bias for “current situation” was introduced. I don’t hear sensitivity to the other variables in the information provided. How were the decisions informed by fire orders 1 and 3.

    The intricacies of being sensitive to forecasts and expected fire behavior are the stuff of bad things happening.
    A focus on the current situation is mitigated by the discipline of the orders, and strengthened by setting trigger points. Maybe the decision cycle was messed up by things happening at night and waking up to an unpredictable change of events? They don’t say.

    They don’t say if resource were or were not available. They say other fires were going on, and other priorities where higher. Was that the case for the whole time period of the fire? They don’t say.

    I don’t know what the informed decision process was, but the things not said make it feel painfully familiar to past experiences. It makes my gut hurt. The mess that can be, when many things are going on, and things get missed. The fire orders are brilliant; but they are also precise in finding where it all goes wrong.

    I feel for those involved. There’s some unfinished business that I cringe about. It’s always better to just get it out and deal with it.

  20. Sorry, Henry. Everyone has a right to voice their opinion. We live in a free country. It would be illegal for anyone to pick up a shovel or in any way to have attempted to put that fire out. You are being ridiculous. This is a fire that should not have been put out, just as the USFS admitted error in the 1987 Woodfords Fire. Get over yourself. Not everyone is a firefighter, but that doesn’t mean they lack critical-thinking skills. People in the position to make these decisions need to be held accountable, no matter how worthy their careers have or haven’t been. That is how organizations learn not to continue making the same mistakes, and the USFS has made numerous, huge mistakes in the past. The USFS will get sued, as it did in the 1987 Woodfords Fire and it will have to admit error and pay. And, since it’s taxpayers who will have to pay, Henry, we ALL have the right as U.S. citizens and TAXPAYERS to criticize.

  21. Ben there, done that
    Thanks for your perspective, very well said, it’s the unsaid that gets to the heart of this to be sure.
    We had a FLA Facilitated Learning Analysis conducted for a large incident, when it was all said and done I had to take a real hard look at decisions that I made and and how those decision impacted others, I hope they decide to at the very least have an AAR and maybe share with those most impacted.

    Thanks again……

  22. Yeah, except the other jeff actually had eyes on it, so definitely a missed opportunity.

  23. Thank you for the update on the Tamarack Fire, the presentation helps highlight the real-world challenges that wild land fire fighters and managers face when trying to predict what may happen. With the numerous other lightening strikes and fire combined with constrained resources it appears that they were doing their best with what they have available. I can see both sides of this unfortunate fire and the impacts of their judgement that have grown into significant impacts on the public and cast doubt on the whole system. Who knows if they had not attended to other the other fires if those impacts would have been worse. Thanks for the blog!

  24. This sounds like the perfect situation for smokejumpers; remote location, single tree struck by lightning. Why wasn’t an order placed for smokejumpers?

  25. Oh Henry ! You are sooo wrong, One maybe two retardant drops or several buckets drops would have held this in check. With many lightning fires in the area , multiple tanker drops would have held this til resources could have become available.
    Sorry dude, have done this many times, The FS has failed again.
    Stop sticking up for a FAILED agency and work towards a positive change in policy.

  26. No criticism, just asking and wondering what was happening Bill ?
    I have conducted firing ops under very extreme conditions, won some lost some but was one tactic used.

  27. I grew up in Alpine County and this fire really bothers me. I am a retired Forest Service Firefighter. I was a qualified FBAN/LTAN and a Supervisory Dispatcher. I managed fires over the years in my different positions and I was called in many times to evaluate others managed fires. I agree with the program managing fires and do not want to see it go away. But having said that I think some valuable lessons should be learned from the Tamarack fire.
    As for limited resources being available, I get that it’s a bad year and fires like Bootleg are sucking up lots of resources but come on. During a 12-day period are we being told that the jumper availability was always low, I don’t believe it. They don’t use jumpers on big fires. My dispatcher experience tells me they could have put jumpers on this fire.
    I question that this fire was a wind driven fire on July 16th. The Markleeville RAWS winds show that sustained winds of 10 mph blew for about three hours that afternoon. That may sound a little high but if you look at the rest of July weather from that station it is common to see those afternoon winds at that speed and location. My experience as an FBAN says 20 plus mph winds is when fires become wind driven. Now was it a plume dominated event? In my opinion, YES! Given the fuel moistures leading up to that day and then the RH dropping into the single digits on the 16th that would be expected to happen, and it did happen.
    The biggest thing that jumped out at me are the indicators of the Fuel Moistures that for some reason looked to be ignored. At the end of June, you can look at the sig GB-11 Fire Danger Charts and they were all setting historic numbers. Also, the Burnside Live Fuel Moisture site which is about 8 air miles from the fire also showed numbers that were very concerning. They have been gathering data from this site since 2012. On June 15, 2021, the Live Fuel moisture for Ponderosa Pine was 43. Prior to this time the historic low for this site on June 15th had been 92 with an average of 98. Now you can see low numbers for this site in October but not June. Also, the Sagebrush numbers for the same site on June 15, 2021, where recorded to be 77 and historic low had been 220 with the average being 235 on June 15th. So bottom line someone should have looked at that and conclude that it was extremely dry this year, to dry to manage or ignore a fire in this area.
    I am not pointing fingers, but I think there should be policy that if you are not planning to take any suppression action on a fire in the future that it should be reviewed by an LTAN or FBAN. Also, as fire managers everyone should know what the critical fuel moistures are for the area you manage. Last, to everyone out there in the business. If your ERC’s or Fuel Moistures are at historic levels, you need to understand the fire may burn worse than anyone has ever experienced. I also get that fires now are worse than anyone has seen before and everyone has a tougher job now. Be safe.

  28. It is not the IC team fault they came after the fire was started and making runs that the forest service and the district ranger decided to order a team to come fight the fire. If anyone is to blame its the forest service and their genius leaders of that area to blame not the IC teams they come after the fact to clean up n put the fire out

  29. 1. How did that sparse fuels and natural barriers work out for ya’ll
    2. I am eager to have a discussion about firefighter safety when you could of exposed a squad of IHCs vs the several thousand folks currently working the incident.

  30. It’s a small depression. I photographed it on 7/13 at 0700 and called 911. Later that afternoon I filmed a chopper orbiting its location.

  31. Several thousand? Total personnel on the incident peaked at well under 2,000. Exaggeration doesn’t help the discussion.

  32. Firing operations were successfully conducted around structures in the 395 corridor.

  33. I am not a fire fighting professional. My opinion comes from the perspective of a taxpayer who happens to live in the area. I drove 395 today between Gardnerville and Holbrook. What a mess and to realize that this didnt have to happen.
    To make my response shorter Ill simply say in my profession when you screw up, and this was a massive screwup, one loses his job. That is how it is in the private sector and how it should be in Government. It could be that a demotion could be in order but whoever the decision maker was in this instance, they need to remove themselves or be removed. I think the public deserves nothing less.

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