California: Coffee Fire

Coffee Fire
The south end of the Coffee Fire, the day after completing a three-day, 1,400-acre burnout in the area. The Redding Hotshots’ vehicles can been seen on the road. The crew was taking a break nearby.

Today our California road trip took us to the 6,100-acre Coffee Fire in northern California’s Trinity Alps — very steep, remote country near tiny little towns that no one has ever heard of. Towns so small that you don’t even notice them when driving through, like Trinity Center, Coffee Creek, Covington Mill, and Wyntoon. Later you look at a map, and think, “I drove through Wyntoon? Who KNEW?”

a yurt
A yurt, used as an office. Note the air conditioner.

That is not to diminish the work being done by the 558 firefighters and support personnel, out on the fireline and toiling at the Incident Command Post in hastily erected yurts, each with a struggling little 110-volt air conditioner sitting on a table outside, blowing slightly cooler air in through a window. But the fire personnel appreciated the output of the A/C. Not every incident command post has the electricity capacity to run a couple of dozen air conditioners. Why, back in the old days… (don’t get me started!).

Kevin Shepard Rockland FD
Kevin Shepard of the Rocklin Fire Department, mops up along Coffee Creek Road, with Captain Chris Hertel.

The firefighters out on Coffee Creek Road did not have air conditioners in the 90+ degree conditions. The ones we saw were working to keep burning logs that rolled down the hill from crossing the road and starting spot fires. During the previous three days, August 6 through 8, a planned 1,400-acre burnout set the very steep hill above them on fire. Firefighters used a helicopter to light it, dropping little ping pong ball-like plastic spheres that ignited about half a minute after being ejected from the helicopter. Over the three days the helicopter lit horizontal lines, like terraces, working from the top slowly down to the road above the creek. We could see the smokey convection column from 40 air miles away in Redding on Friday as they lit off the last section in a blaze of glory.

Kevin Shepard Rockland FD
Kevin Shepard of the Rocklin Fire Department mops up along Coffee Creek Road.
Kevin Shepard Rockland FD
Kevin Shepard of the Rocklin Fire Department.

The firefighters on the road were not only battling the fire and the rolling, burning logs, but there was also a near constant barrage of rocks coming down the hill and landing on the road, freed from their perches on the steep slope as the vegetation supporting them burned away. Most of them were fist to cantaloupe-sized, but the front end loader operator whose job was to go back and forth pushing debris and logs off the road said one of the rocks was four feet in diameter. Definitely a hard hat area. 😉

roadside meeting
Roadside meeting, just outside the fire perimeter near the Coffee Fire. Left to right: Operations Section Chief, (in the vehicle) Branch Director, Division Supervisor, Fire Behavior Analyst, Information Officer.

The Branch Director responsible for that area on the fire, Marc Walburn, said the plan was to leave an unburned “filter strip” at the bottom of the blackened hill, as is sometimes done on logging or other projects that disturb the vegetation. The filter strip can slow down any water runoff from the newly barren slope above, and filter out silt, debris, and ash that could have an adverse impact on water quality in the creek below. We were not clear on how they intended to get the fire to stop at the top of the filter strip. They did not construct a fireline as a barrier. They may have counted on the rain that occurred a few days before to help with the effort. When we were there in mid-afternoon today, the fire had burned all the way down to the road in some places and was being mopped up by engine crews.

Despite the fact that some areas in northern California have had some rain over the last week, even up to an inch in the northeastern part of the state, some locations are still extremely dry, especially the larger 1,000 and 10,000-hour time lag fuels, better known as “logs” to normal people. On the Coffee Fire, the Incident Meteorologist exploring a burned area discovered a large log that apparently had been rained on a few days before. The top of the log, wet from the rain, did not burn, but everything below the top, being extremely dry, did, leaving an odd looking unburned shelf, with white ash below.

Energy Release Component
Energy Release Component for the area near the Coffee Fire. The ERC is an index of how hot a fire could burn. Until the recent rains, the ERC (the green line) was bouncing between the average (black) and the maximum recorded (red), and occasionally setting new maximum records.

Another story we heard yesterday added to the evidence of drought. Dan Johnson, the Regional Aviation Group Supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service’s North Zone in California, said firefighters are telling him that they are finding and occasionally stepping into more stump holes than usual while they are walking through a burned area. The stumps and large underground roots, especially of dead trees, are burning more completely and deeper underground, since they are much dryer than normal. These sometimes can’t be seen until you step onto an area that collapses under your weight, and your foot goes several inches, or in a worst case, several feet down into the earth, surrounded by burning coals. Serious injuries can be the result.

Trinity Lake
The northern portion of Trinity Lake, not far from the Coffee Fire. Other sections of the lake still have some water.

Be careful out there.

Convection column in northern California

Coffee Complex smoke Column _8-8-2014
We’re not positive which of the fires north of Redding this smoke is from, but most likely it’s the Coffee Fire, 40 miles northwest of Redding. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Driving back from dinner tonight in Redding, California, heading north, this smoke column was mesmerizing. There are three major fires north of the city, but we’re thinking this smoke was on the Coffee Fire where they conducted a burnout operation today. That fire is 40 miles northwest of Redding, and10 miles northwest of Trinity Center on the Shasta Trinity National Forest in the Trinity Alps.