The blaze burned more than 124,000 acres along the coast and mountains of Central California in 2020
A 31-year old man was convicted Thursday of starting the Dolan Fire that burned 124,527 acres along the coast and mountains of Central California in 2020. A judge found Ivan Gomez guilty of arson, throwing rocks at a vehicle, cultivating marijuana, and 11 counts of cruelty to animals for killing multiple condors. In all Mr Gomez was found guilty of 16 felony counts.
After the fire started on August 18, California State Parks personnel detained Gomez at the John Little State Natural Reserve near the fire’s origin in Dolan Canyon. He had been seen throwing rocks at vehicles on Highway 1 and the Lime Creek Bridge. Mr. Gomez told officers that he had started the fire at an illegal marijuana grow on the other side of the ridge and killed five men.
There was no evidence of any homicides, but a multi-week investigation by US Forest Service fire investigators confirmed the fire did in fact originate at the illegal marijuana grow site. According to the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office, this piece of evidence proved to be key as the defendant correctly identified the area of origin, which was also confirmed by a defense expert. The evidence showed Mr. Gomez would have had time to start the fire around 5 p.m. and make it to the Lime Creek area where he was confronted at 8:15 p.m. Firefighters testified that no other individuals were found in this area and that the defendant was shirtless, sweating, and was found with multiple lighters on his person when contacted by law enforcement. The lighters were in working order and matched others found at the point of origin. In a three-hour interview with detectives from the Sheriff’s Department Mr. Gomez admitted numerous times that he started the fire.
The Dolan fire destroyed 14 structures including 10 residences. It also ruined multiple condor nesting structures and caused 12 condor birds to perish, injuring several more.
On September 8, 2020 the fire burned over and destroyed the US Forest Service fire station on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road seven miles from the California coast highway. Personnel there at the time included two USFS engine crews, two dozers with operators, and the only Division supervisor working the night shift due to a shortage of personnel. Fifteen firefighters deployed into only 13 fire shelters. Four were injured and three were hospitalized. One had very serious burns and had to rely on contributions from a GoFundMe account to help pay for his desperately needed long-term medical treatment, since the federal government dragged their feet in paying the bills.
The federal government has balked at paying for the treatment needed by a firefighter who was severly injuried during the burn over
Congress has set aside $18 million to rebuild a US Forest Service fire station that was destroyed in the Dolan Fire in the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California in 2020.
The fire had been burning for weeks. The night before it reached Nacimiento station on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road 7 miles from the California coast highway on September 8, 2020, the fire ran for about three miles toward the station, burning 30,000 acres with spot fires three-quarters of a mile ahead. The fire personnel at the station during the burnover included two USFS engine crews, two dozers with operators, and the only Division supervisor working the night shift due to a shortage of personnel.
Below is an aerial photo of the Nacimiento guard station taken almost exactly two years before the burnover.
Fifteen firefighters deployed into only 13 fire shelters. Four were injured and three were hospitalized. One had very serious burns.
The Forest Service will use the funding to replace the fire station, barracks, engine garage, and pumphouse, as well as a water well, solar connections, and access roads.
These funds were provided as Supplemental Disaster Funding through the Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act of 2021. The disaster assistance funding is a share of the $1.36 billion of supplemental appropriations provided to the Forest Service.
The federal government balked at paying for treatment for injuries to one of the firefighters
According to The Tribune of San Luis Obispo, California, one of the firefighters severly injured in the burn over is still dealing with not only his on-the-job injuries, but attempting to get the government to pay for his treatment:
Casey Allen said Monday that healing from his second- and third-degree burns is continuing, with only a few small wounds left on his ankles, and his Achilles tendon on his right foot is almost completely healed.
However, the news about Allen’s injured left hand wasn’t as good: Doctors may have to amputate his ring and pinkie fingers.
He credited U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal and his district representative Wendy Motta with finally breaking a stubborn repayment logjam so Allen and his wife Tina, who he called “my rock,” could be repaid for money they had to pay out of pocket toward his recovery.
Mr. Allen’s fiancée at the time set up a GoFundMe account for him. She wrote, “He will need hospital services for the next year at a minimum.”
Mr. Allen is suffering one of the ultimate indignities — being severely injured in a life-changing on-the-job incident, and your employer, the U.S. government, is balking at stepping up and providing the payment for your desperately needed medical treatment. The Office of Workers Compensation needs to be funded adequately by Congress so it can rebuild its staff and respond PROMPTLY to situations like this.
The Nacimiento guard station, two fire engines, several personal vehicles, and two dozers burned — there was one very serious injury
Several “learning reports” have been released by the U.S. Forest Service about the burnover and entrapment one and a half years ago of wildland firefighters at a remote fire station. It occurred on the Dolan Fire on the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California September 8, 2020. Fifteen firefighters deployed into only 13 fire shelters. Four firefighters were injured and three were hospitalized. One had very serious burns.
The Dolan Fire had been burning for weeks but there were about half a dozen other fires in California that were larger, some much larger such as the LNU Lightning Complex, SCU Lightning Complex, CZU August Lightning, and the August Complex.
The Incident Management Team ran a modeling scenario on September 4 which showed that within the next 14 days the probability of the fire reaching the Nacimiento Guard Station was 60 to 80 percent with no delaying tactics. At that time the fire was 3.1 miles away.
The night before the fire reached the station on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road 7 miles from the highway on the California coast, the fire ran for about three miles toward the station, burning 30,000 acres with spot fires three-quarters of a mile ahead. The map below based on infrared data shows the growth in the 26-hour period ending at 2 a.m. on Sept. 8. The fire hit the station between 7 and 8 a.m. on September 8.
When the fixed-wing aircraft mapped the fire five or six hours before the incident, it had burned about 74,000 acres, more than twice the size mapped the previous night. The sensors on the plane detected intense heat on the southern edge of the fire, 0.7 miles north of Nacimiento Station.
The fire personnel at the station during the burnover included two USFS engine crews, two dozers with operators, and the only Division supervisor working the night shift — due to a shortage of personnel. Other overhead at the fire may have been distracted as a newly established Incident Command Post had to be evacuated and relocated as the fire approached in the middle of the night.
Several of those involved at Nacimiento believed there was no way to defend the station even though a hand crew had cleared some vegetation, a hand line had been dug, and there were hose lays around the structures. With that work done and the fact that the station had survived other fires, some of the locals said they could protect the buildings and the personal belongings and vehicles of the fire personnel who lived there.
Below is an aerial photo of the Nacimiento Guard Station taken almost exactly two years before the burnover. It appeared in an article on Wildfire Today about the entrapment published September 11, 2020.
The photo below was taken after the burnover.
This is the first paragraph in the Learning Review — Narrative:
Smoke is billowing out of the barracks and hot embers are raining down all around. Engine 16 is on fire. The engine bay is on fire. Marty can’t get his pack out of the burning engine, which means he can’t get to his fire shelter. He’s just standing there, and Rene can’t get his attention. She has her shelter out, ready to go. She hits him, but he just stands there. She hits him again, but he still just stands there. Marty is not ready to commit to the shelter; he’s thinking about potential dangers from the propane tanks around them, and that more needs to or could be done. Rene hits him again and pulls down on his shirt to get him down to the ground and into the fire shelter. Rene tucks the fire shelter around him and cinches it in tight under his arms and legs. She takes a quick look around and then climbs in under the shelter with him. Eleven other firefighters are deployed around them in the parking lot of the Nacimiento guard station. The heat inside the shelters was stifling. “I could feel the skin tightening on my face. Mucous was coming out of my nose and eyes, hanging off my chin. I felt like all the fluid was being roasted out of me. My throat was so sore I could barely drink my water.” Everyone is asking the same question: “How did we get here?”
“If we preach it, we should do it.”
The Organizational Learning Report has a section, Theme 3, pointing out that even though the Forest Service has “preached [to homeowners] FireWise concepts for decades” about how to reduce the chances of their houses burning as a wildfire approaches, too many of the agency’s own structures lack FireWise status. The report says, “If we preach it, we should do it. ”
We asked Kelly Martin for her thoughts about the reports on the Dolan Fire. She is the current president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and the retired Chief of Fire and Aviation for Yosemite National Park. She replied by text:
The biggest thing that comes to mind is our over confidence in what we deem ‘defendable’ until the time wedge becomes too small to make safe, proactive decisions. The oppressive personal/social pressure to protect treasured places puts us in an untenable situation to champion the notion, ‘not on my watch’ are we going to lose this place. The protection narrative gets repeated and reinforced by the majority who consider it ‘their home turf’ and unfortunately tend to dismiss many ‘outsiders’ objective perspectives on the situation that might help reduce the deep personal attachment to ‘home turf.’ Having ‘Outsiders’ become part of the decision making process can help enhance rational decision making.
Confirmation bias may have been a factor. The fire station survived previous fires, thus lulling us to previous events rather than fully appreciating the situation we now find ourselves in with excessive fuel buildup.
Also, I think the Wildfire Decision Support System (WFDSS) process and further high level local management and Incident Management Team analysis should have spotted this mindset trap early on.
The disaster at the Dolan Fire is yet another example where knowing the real-time location of the fire may have made a difference. The Captain who ran the station and some other locals believed that they needed to protect the facility and insisted that they COULD. Others thought differently but were not assertive enough or didn’t have the authority to override that decision. They knew the fire was approaching. But would things have turned out differently with others who didn’t have emotional attachments to the buildings? Or who had real-time intelligence, and could “see” the locations of all resources as well as the entire fire — the very rapid rate of spread, the spot fires ¾ mile ahead, and the intensity? What if the Operations Section Chief, Branch Director, primary Safety Officer, or the Incident Commander had access to real-time video from a drone circling over the fire? Any one of those might have ordered the withdrawal of the engines, dozers, and 15 firefighters hours before they came close to death. They might have said, “Forget the damn structures. Think about the humans. Consider the physical and mental trauma those humans could suffer, perhaps for years.”
The decision to stay or go, in addition to human safety, should have also considered the dollar value of the personal belongings and vehicles of the employees who lived at Nacimiento. They were not evacuated days earlier even though the station was in a mandatory evacuation area. They trusted the Incident Management Team, the Forest overhead, and the Captains. How much will it cost those firefighters, on their meager salaries, to replace their personal vehicles and belongings? Then there is the cost to taxpayers of two engines, two dozers, and at least one pickup truck.
The technology has existed for years to provide real-time video of fires 24 hours a day. The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act required that by September 12, 2019 the five federal land management agencies “develop consistent protocols and plans for the use on wildland fires of unmanned aircraft system technologies, including for the development of real-time maps of the location of wildland fires.”
While this technology has been demonstrated and used sparingly, such as the FIRIS program, real-time mapping is far from being used routinely.
The Dingell Act also mandated that the five federal land management agencies “jointly develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources for use by wildland firefighters, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal type 1 wildland fire incident management teams,” due by March 12, 2021.
The Bureau of Land Management has installed hardware for Location Based Services (LBS), which are now operational on more than 700 wildland fire engines, crew transports, and support vehicles. Vehicle position and utilization data are visually displayed via a web-based portal or mobile device application. Ten months after it was required by Congress, the U.S. Forest Service has made very little progress on this mandate.
Some other government facilities are also not FireWise
It is not just the Forest Service with structures that do not all meet FireWise standards. When I was an area Fire Management Officer for the National Park Service, two of the parks for which I was responsible were threatened on different occasions by wildfires. Although the threat was low to moderate, I was able to convince the Park Superintendents that hazard reduction and thinning of the trees was necessary, now. It should have already been done, but seeing smoke in the air made it possible to make fast decisions and to get it accomplished very quickly. Up until then, removing any tree near park headquarters was a tough row to hoe. Neither fire spread into the parks, but the long-delayed and badly needed work got done. And I slept better.
A Type 3 Incident Management Team from the New York City Fire Department will assume command of the Dolan Fire on October 6. Since it started on August 18 the blaze has burned over 124,000 acres on the California coast 10 miles south of Big Sur, mostly on the Los Padres National Forest but also on private land.
Below is information released by New York City.
FDNY Sends 50 of New York’s Bravest to Fight Dolan Fire in Central California
October 2, 2020
NEW YORK—Mayor Bill de Blasio today announced that the FDNY Incident Management Team (IMT), comprised of 50 members of the FDNY, will deploy to Pacific Valley Station, California, to support the containment effort for the Dolan fire that is currently devastating the Central Coast region. This is the largest-ever single FDNY IMT deployment to a wildland fire. The IMT leaves today, Friday, October 2nd, for a two-week deployment.
“New Yorkers don’t turn away from a friend in need. Our City doesn’t, either,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Our hearts go out to all those affected by Dolan already, and I’m proud to work with the State of California to provide the support it needs to keep Americans safe. We look forward to welcoming New York’s Bravest back home soon after a job well done.”
The FDNY IMT will assist with managing the operations, planning, and logistics for the containment effort, which is extremely difficult because the Dolan Fire is up against steep terrain that is inaccessible to most fire suppression efforts. FDNY IMT will use drones to locate hotspots so helicopters can extinguish the fire, supervise the strengthening of existing fire lines, and monitor the potential spread of fire into additional areas.
The team will also be supervising fire units operating across large geographic areas of the forest; tracking all resources, including Firefighting personnel and apparatus; and tracking costs related to equipment, food, and supplies, as well as possible injuries to first responders operating in the fire line area.
“FDNY members will go to any lengths – and even well beyond the borders of our city – to help those in need of our assistance,” said Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro. “When massive fires and natural disasters cause damage across the country, the men and women of our Department’s highly-trained Incident Management Team always answer the call for help. I know they will make an immediate impact in the extensive containment efforts already underway.”
A separate group of 15 members of the FDNY IMT returned home one week ago after a two-week deployment to Oregon to assist with containment and management of the Brattain Fire in the Fremont-Winema National Forest.
IMTs are trained teams of first responders responsible for overseeing large-scale long-duration incidents and emergencies, including forest fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. Following September 11th, 2001, an IMT from the United States Forest Service greatly assisted FDNY with the rescue and recovery effort at the World Trade Center site. From this experience, the FDNY IMT was created to manage incidents in New York City and across the country. The FDNY IMT has responded to multiple national emergencies, from forest fires; to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina; to Broome County, NY following Hurricane Irene; to here in New York City after Hurricane Sandy. The FDNY IMT consists of more than 300 FDNY members from all ranks in the Department with specialized training in incident command, rescue operations, logistics, and planning.
(End of news release)
The introduction to the article was edited October 4, 2020 to correctly show the start date of the Dolan Fire as August 18, 2020.
And, an update on the shelter deployment at the Dolan Fire
A firefighting hand crew was overrun by the fire they were fighting September 9 and had to deploy their fire shelters. It happened on the Claremont/Bear Fire, two merged blazes that are part of the North Complex.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection explained that the fire became unpredictable due to erratic weather and dry fuel conditions. The agency said the personnel were “virtually unharmed except for two minor injuries.” The incident is under review.
Fire shelters are small foldable pup tent-like fire resistant devices that a wildland firefighter can unfold and climb into if there is no option for escaping from an approaching inferno. The shelters can resist radiant heat, and if the person inside can seal the edges under their body, convective heat as well, but there are limits. Many firefighters have used the devices successfully, but others have been killed inside them.
The North Complex has burned 252,534 acres east of Oroville, California. Approximately 1,000 structures have been destroyed and 10 civilians have been killed. Resources assigned include 73 hand crews, 18 helicopters, 254 fire engines, 76 dozers, and 98 water tenders for a total of 3,108 personnel.
On September 5, three firefighters on the Bridger Foothills Fire northeast of Bozeman, Montana were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters when their safety became compromised by the proximity of the blaze, fire officials said.
September 8 on the Dolan Fire south of Big Sur, California, another crew of firefighters was entrapped and deployed their fire shelters. Updated information from the U.S. Forest Service is slightly different from what was originally released shortly after the incident. Andrew Madsen, an information officer for the fire, explained that of the 14 that were entrapped, three were flown to Community Regional Hospital in Fresno. One was initially in critical condition and the other two were in serious condition. As of today, September 11, the two that were serious have been released, and the critically injured individual is much better and is expected to be released in a day or two. Mr. Madsen said some of the other 11 members of the crew had “smoke inhalation” issues, but were evaluated at the scene and are OK. The crew was attempting to protect the Forest Service’s Nacimiento Fire station as the blaze approached.
One injury is critical and another is serious, the U.S. Forest Service reported
September 8, 2020 | 5:05 p.m. PDT
Fifteen firefighters attempting to prevent a structure from burning in a California wildfire were entrapped and overrun by the fire, the U.S. Forest Service announced today.
Two firefighters were injured, one critically and the other seriously, the release said. Both patients were transported by Life Flight to Community Regional Hospital in Fresno.
(Update September 11, 2020: New information from the U.S. Forest Service is slightly different from what was originally released shortly after the incident. Those new details are in an article published Sept. 11 about another crew that had to deploy fire shelters.)
It occurred at the Dolan Fire at about 8:31 a.m., September 8, 26 air miles southeast of Big Sur.
The firefighters deployed the fire shelters they carry for this type of situation.
The Forest Service said the incident occurred while the personnel were defending the Nacimiento Station from the approaching fire.
A shelter deployment involving fifteen firefighters from the Dolan Fire occurred approximately at 0831 on Tuesday, Sept 8, 2020, in the vicinity of Nacimiento Station. These dedicated firefighters received injuries including burns and smoke inhalation while defending the Nacimiento Station on Dolan Fire on the Los Padres National Forest in California. Nacimiento Station was destroyed.
When a fixed wing aircraft mapped the Dolan Fire at 2 a.m. PDT September 8 about six hours before the incident, the fire was 74,591 acres, more than twice the size mapped the previous night when it was 36,213 acres. The heat sensing equipment detected intense heat at the fire’s edge at 2 a.m., 0.7 miles northwest of Nacimiento Station.
Fire shelters are small foldable pup tent-like fire resistant devices that a wildland firefighter can unfold and climb into if there is no option for escaping from an approaching inferno. Many firefighters have used the devices successfully, but others have been killed inside them.
Three days before, on September 5, three firefighters on the Bridger Foothills Fire northeast of Bozeman, Montana were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters when their safety became compromised by the proximity of the blaze, fire officials said.