Two water tender operators on the Dixie Fire died of COVID-19

Jose T. Calderon and Cessar Saenz, both of San Diego County

Jose T. Calderon
Jose T. Calderon

Two water tender operators have died of COVID-19 this month. They both worked for Brenda’s Fire Water based in Ramona, California. Two trucks with three drivers were dispatched from the company to the Dixie Fire in Northern California. They worked shifts to keep the water tenders working on the fire as much as possible.

Jose T. Calderon of Chula Vista California had spent much of his adult life driving virtually all types of trucks. He was the first of the two to die. On August 11 after 14 days of employment with the company and testing positive for COVID, he was taken from the west zone of the Dixie Fire to a hospital in Redding. He spent three weeks on a ventilator before passing away there September 5.

A family member told Wildfire Today that Jose’s death certificate listed the cause of death as respiratory failure, COVID-19, and smoke inhalation.

After Jose went to the hospital, his co-worker Cessar Saenz of El Cajon, California tested positive for COVID at the Dixie Fire and went home. When his symptoms worsened he was admitted to Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, California. About three or four weeks later he died on September 14. He had just turned 63 two weeks earlier.

Cessar Saenz
Cessar Saenz. Posted on his Facebook page Feb. 13, 2021.

On July 25 he changed his employment status on Facebook to “Started New Job at Happily Retired” and was planning on moving to Texas.

Cessar drove water tenders on fires off and on since 2001. John Clark thought of Cessar not just as a good friend, but like a brother. He said Cessar liked to ride his motorcycle, fish, and camp. Cessar had been a truck and charter bus driver for decades and for eight years drove a mobile clinic out of Alpine, California to seven Tribal Reservations for the Southern Indian Health Council. He also taught people how to drive school busses.

Brenda Dahl of Brenda’s Fire Water confirmed the deaths of Jose and Cessar, but declined to provide any additional information. Neither the US Forest Service or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded to multiple inquiries about these line of duty deaths. As far as we know there has been no official announcement from a fire agency about the passing of these two firefighters. The water tenders were under a call when needed contract with one of the two agencies.

Our sincere condolences go out to the families, friends, and co-workers of Jose and Cessar.

Before COVID, the line of duty deaths of contractors on wildfires was always announced and their service was honored even though they are not regular government employees. It is not clear why the FS and CAL FIRE now feel the need to cover up fatalities on fires. I can remember when reports were written and lessons were learned from serious accidents and fatalities in the line duty. Is the problem that there are now too many to document and they are offloading that duty to journalists?

Putting your head in the sand is rarely a successful strategy.

Update on Northern California’s Dixie Fire

The fire has burned 960,470 acres

2:22 p.m. PDT Sept. 14, 2021

Dixie Fire 9-14-2021
Dixie Fire map September 14, 2021

The Dixie Fire that started on Tuesday, July 13 has now burned 960,470 acres. Minimal fire activity is occurring but with some increase in visible smoke as the weather continues to become warmer and drier. The incident management team reported that unburned interior islands of vegetation near the line continue to flare up and present control issues due to a limited number of firefighting resources.

Nearly all of the perimeter has established fireline. There are a few relatively small stretches where it does not exist according to the September 14 map prepared by the Incident Management Team. But it is possible that it is not needed in all of those locations.

A satellite overflight at 2:29 a.m. PDT September 14 found few large heat sources. However from hundreds of miles above the Earth the sensors on the satellite can’t detect small heat sources that firefighters on the ground could easily see, or during the later stages of mopup, feel with the back of their hand as they try to extinguish every hot spot within hundreds of feet of the fireline.

Dixie Fire map, northwest side, September 14, 2021.
Dixie Fire map, northwest side, September 14, 2021.

Lightning and showers hit parts of California, Oregon, and Nevada

9:43 a.m. PDT Sept. 10, 2021

Lighting, 24 hour period
Lightning during the 24-hour period ending at 6:44 a.m. PDT Sept. 10, 2021. The red strikes are the most recent.

Lightning, strong winds, and showers moved into California, Nevada, and Oregon Thursday afternoon. Friday morning at about 7 a.m. the National Weather Service reported approximately 1,100 ground strikes had occurred in California.

David Swain lightning

Most of Northern California and Central Oregon received at least a small amount of rain. While some weather stations recorded none or less than 0.05″ others measured more than 0.25″.

Precipitation, Western US, 24 hours
Precipitation, Western US, 24 hours ending at 7:10 am PDT Sept. 10, 2021.

All of the precipitation amounts below are for the 24-hour period ending at 7:10 a.m. PDT Sept. 10.

Maps of precipitation in California and Oregon–

Precipitation, Northern California, 24 hours
Precipitation, Northern California, 24 hours ending at 7:10 am PDT Sept. 10, 2021.
Precipitation, Oregon, 24 hours
Precipitation, Oregon, 24 hours ending at 7:10 am PDT Sept. 10, 2021

Continue reading “Lightning and showers hit parts of California, Oregon, and Nevada”

Dixie Fire burns to Highway 395 again

Southeast of Susanville, California three miles southeast of Herlong Junction

9:45 a.m. PDT Sept. 7, 2021

Dixie Fire map, southeast side cross Highway 395
Dixie Fire 3-D map. Looking northwest at the escarpment along US Highway 395 at 8:29 p.m. PDT Sept 6, 2021. Bright red areas had intense heat during the mapping flight.

Monday afternoon and evening the southeast side of the huge 917,000-acre Dixie Fire ran to the east pushed by variable winds down a steep escarpment and across US Highway 395. During an 8:29 p.m. mapping flight the fire stretched for a mile along the west side of the highway and for about half that distance had burned across the road. At that time it had not spread very far beyond the highway as it moved into agricultural land. The fire reached US 395 south of Honey Lake three miles southeast of Herlong Junction between roads A25 and A26.

Dixie Fire map, southeast side cross Highway 395
Dixie Fire map, southeast side where by 8:29 p.m. PDT Sept. 6, 2021 the fire had reached and crossed US Highway 395. Bright red areas had intense heat during the mapping flight.
Dixie Fire 8:29 p.m. PDT Sept 6, 2021.
Dixie Fire 8:29 p.m. PDT Sept 6, 2021.

The north side of the fire is also active. At least half of Lassen Volcanic National Park has burned. Within the park on Monday the fire was making a push to the north and northeast across the park boundary south of Badger Mountain. It was also very active around Prospect and West Prospect Peaks within and just north of the park.

Dixie Fire map north side
Dixie Fire map, north side, 8:29 p.m. PDT Sept. 6, 2021. Bright red areas had intense heat during the mapping flight.

West of Highway 44 south of the Bogard Rest Area there were three spot fires Monday night about half a mile west of the highway that combined had burned approximately 130 acres as of sunset on Monday.

On Tuesday crews will continue to complete line in the steep and rugged terrain in the wilderness of Lassen National Volcanic Park and are establishing direct and indirect containment lines south of Old Station utilizing lines created during the 2012 Reading Fire.

Firefighters are preparing for increased fire danger due to predicted strong winds. The forecast for the north side of the fire calls for southwest winds gusting around 20 mph or more every afternoon through Friday with relative humidities close to 20 percent.

How two engine crews installed a 16,000-foot hose lay

On the Dixie Fire

Two engine crews dozer install 16,000 feet hose Dixie Fire
Two engine crews and a dozer install 16,000 feet of hose on the Dixie Fire. CAL FIRE photo.

The hardest part of installing long hose lays in rugged terrain is hauling the hose, and it is usually uphill. When the plans called for 16,000 feet of hose to be installed on the Dixie Fire it just took two engine crews and some ingenuity to get it done. They enlisted the help of dozer E2085 from Paula and sons Earthwork.

The CAL FIRE crews were Lassen Modoc engines E2271 and E2251.

Two engine crews dozer install 16,000 feet hose Dixie Fire
Two engine crews and a dozer install 16,000 feet of hose on the Dixie Fire. CAL FIRE photo.
Two engine crews dozer install 16,000 feet hose Dixie Fire
Two engine crews and a dozer install 16,000 feet of hose on the Dixie Fire. CAL FIRE photo.
Two engine crews dozer install 16,000 feet hose Dixie Fire
Two engine crews and a dozer install 16,000 feet of hose on the Dixie Fire. CAL FIRE photo.

One day in the not too distant future it will become routine to haul hose with drones.

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

Two firefighters at California fires died, one from COVID, the other from unspecified illness

Updated at 8:53 a.m. PDT Sept. 5, 2021

US Army soldiers fire training
Active duty US Army soldiers receive fire training before assisting at the Dixie Fire Sept. 1, 2021. About 200 soldiers have been activated to assist with wildfires in California. InciWeb.

Two firefighters assigned to wildfires in California have died.

One of two emails sent to employees on the Stanislaus National Forest about the fatality of one of their employee/retirees said he “passed away earlier this week due to complications of COVID-19 while assigned to the French Fire near Kernville, CA. He had been hospitalized in Bakersfield.”

The person’s name has not been released by the Stanislaus, but at least three sources confirm it was Allen Johnson.

Allen Johnson
Allen Johnson. USFS.

Allen was a Forest Service retiree and was working as an Administratively Determined (AD) employee on the French Fire. The email to the forest’s staff said it’s very early in the process, but “Tentative plans for honoring Allen include a Dignified Transport of remains followed by a Memorial Service. To the best of our current knowledge, Allen’s dignified transport and Memorial Service will occur on or after September 26.”

California Interagency Incident Management Team 14 posted on Facebook Sept. 1, 2021, “Our team, the firefighting community, and the world lost a great friend, mentor, teacher and comrade last night. Retired South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team IC and Liaison Officer Allen Johnson passed away from complications related to COVID 19.”

So in the absence of official information from the US Forest Service about this line of duty death, it appears from the post by his incident management team that Allen died August 31, 2021.

Saturday night NBC Bay Area reported another fatality — a US Forest Service firefighter assigned to the Dixie Fire near Susanville, California.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service told NBC Bay Area Saturday that the firefighter, an employee with the Lassen National Forest died from an illness. The official added that the firefighter’s death was not related to the fire. No other details have been released at this time.

The official information from CAL FIRE about the Dixie Fire confirms there was a first responder fatality from an illness on September 2.

UPDATE at 11:08 a.m. PDT Sept. 6, 2021: NEWS4 reported today that the US Forest Service said the firefighter that died who had been assigned to the Dixie Fire was Marcus Pacheco, an assistant fire engine operator for the Lassen NF with 30 years of fire experience. He passed away Sept. 2 from what the USFS is calling an "unspecified illness". Late at night on September 5 the Lassen National Forest created a post on Facebook announcing the two fatalities and confirming the names.

The Dixie Fire has burned more than 889,000 acres near Susanville, California and is still actively spreading.

The 25,000-acre French Fire is west of Kernville, California.

Last week a strike team of five engines with 16 firefighters on the Caldor Fire near Lake Tahoe was quarantined for two weeks due to one of their members testing positive for COVID. There have been other reports of firefighters and crews sidelined, quarantined, or sickened, but specifics are hard to come by.

Two weeks ago Wildfire Today asked the five federal land management agencies for the number of their firefighters that have tested positive for COVID or had to quarantine after exposure. All five refused to release any information on the topic and would not explain their reasoning for keeping it secret. On September 2 we asked the US Forest Service again for the numbers of their firefighters who have tested positive for COVID, were hospitalized, or died. We are still waiting for the answers.

We send out our sincere condolences to the family, friends, and co-workers of the two firefighters who passed away while on duty.

(Edited to include the names of the firefighters.)

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to people who passed along this information.