One of the primary factors affecting the spread of the Ferguson Fire west of Yosemite National Park in California is the weather — specifically, the inversions that have been trapping the smoke and partially blocking the sun. Since the fire started July 13 these inversions have been a frequent occurrence. They usually break up in the afternoon, allowing the intensity and rate of spread of the fire to increase. On Tuesday this weather phenomenon again kept the fire from making any big runs, allowing only another 1,693 acres to burn, bringing the total up to 37,795 acres.
Information from the Incident Management Team Tuesday night:
“North of the Merced River on the Stanislaus National Forest, firefighters constructed indirect containment lines up Soapstone Ridge, opening old roads near the burn scar of the 2013 Rim Fire. Crews strengthened and improved containment lines east toward Eagle Peak and down to El Portal.
“Along the eastern edge of the fire, crews were successful initiating strategic firing operations to remove unburned vegetation between containment lines and the fire. Crews also evaluated structures for defensible space.
“South of the Merced River on the Sierra National Forest, containment lines were secured from Jerseydale across to Wawona Campground. Crews will continue planning strategic firing operations to help build a wider buffer to stop the fire’s spread.
“Yosemite National Park closure: Yosemite National Park officials announced closures to the Yosemite Valley and Wawona areas, as well as the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, effective noon on Wednesday, July 25. ”
When I worked at Log Springs in 1968 on the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California I don’t remember much discussion about the catastrophe that killed 15 wildland firefighters only a couple of dozen miles away 15 years before. The Rattlesnake Fire was not a huge campaign fire that blackened tens of thousands of acres and took weeks to contain. It burned about 1,300 acres and was declared under control roughly 40 hours after Stan Pattan threw the match out the window of his green Buick, July 9, 1953.
All but one of the firefighters that perished that day were affiliated with the New Tribes Mission based at a nearby facility at Fouts Springs. Known to the locals as missionaries, they often mobilized firefighters from their group as needed when fires were burning in the area. Some had taken fire training, and others had none. The 15th person killed was a Forest Service employee who had volunteered to carry food to the missionaries who were working on a spot fire at night down in a drainage where they could not be seen by the other personnel on the fire. And, the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire.
John N. Maclean, an author well known in wildland fire circles for his previous work, has released a new book about the Rattlesnake Fire, titled River of Fire: The Rattlesnake Fire and the Mission Boys. The official release is today, June 23 at the 75th Region 4 Smokejumper Reunion in McCall, Idaho.
The book builds on the piece about the fire that Mr. Maclean included in his Fire and Ashes book published in 2003 which also had sections about three additional wildland fire topics. The new book adds more details and includes information from, and sections written by, firefighters who have recently worked in the area, including three past superintendents of the Mendocino Hotshots. There are also photos freshly-taken by Kari Greer, a photographer who specializes in wildland fire. Mr. Maclean told us that one of the themes of this book is “Passing It On”, which is the title of the foreword written in May, 2018 by Don Will, Superintendent of the Mendocino Hotshots from 1988 to 1994. The book explains that the Mendocino Hotshots were the unofficial caretakers of the tragedy site for years.
River of Fire has a number very compelling stories scattered throughout. For example, it describes the process of developing the first air tanker that could drop water on a fire. In the early 1950’s there had been some attempts at designing an apparatus that could drop water from an airplane, but everything was crude and not effective. Two years after the fire, in 1955, Joe Ely, the fire control officer on the Mendocino who also helped fight the Rattlesnake Fire, worked with a crop-duster pilot named Vance Nolta who designed a tank with a gate and a dump valve that could be operated from the cockpit. A test of the system on a fire intentionally ignited along a runway at the Willows, California airport was a success. Later that year it was first used on a wildfire near Covelo on the Mendocino National Forest.
There is also a touching story about a young child who lived at the Fouts Springs missionary camp when the fire started in 1953. Her father was killed in the fire, and as she grew up her mother did not talk about him or how he died. But in 2010 she found information about the tragedy online and had to find out more. After driving eight hours from Oregon she contacted the Forest Supervisor’s office in Willows and asked for directions. Here is an excerpt from one of the later sections of the book:
…Instead, they acquired two eager tour guides, the former and current hotshot superintendents [Daren] Dalrymple and [Jon] Tishner, who volunteered to take them to the site and show them around. “I knew there had to be people like her out there,” Dalrymple said. “It was the best day on the hill I’ve ever had.”
The tragedy led to the development of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders as well as changes in wildland fire training, safety standards, and awareness of weather and fire behavior.
For decades there was not much at the site to identify it or interpret what took place on that fateful day. In 1993 a plaque was installed that had the names of the firefighters that perished, and in 2005 a new interpretive and training site overlooking the area in Grindstone Canyon was built on the old Alder Springs Road. It features exhibits describing the events that day in 1953, and trails lead visitors along the routes taken by those 15 firefighters, and the ones who survived.
The development of the memorial and the maintenance of the trails and the original firelines and dozer lines help to facilitate the numerous visits and staff rides each year. Passing on the lessons learned to new generations of firefighters can help build up their knowledge base about fire behavior and weather and may keep them from repeating some of the unfortunate decisions that led to the deaths of 14 missionaries and one agency employee.
There are, of course, other wildfires where large numbers of wildland firefighters died — the 1910 fires (85 killed), the Griffith Park Fire in 1933 in a Los Angeles City Park (29, most were not firefighters but were pulled from other tasks to work on the fire), Blackwater Fire of 1937 (15), Mann Gulch of 1949 (13), Inaja in 1956 (11), South Canyon Fire of 1994 (14), and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire (19).
We asked Mr. Maclean for permission to use an excerpt from the book (longer than the brief one above), and this is what he sent us:
During the photo shoot for this book this spring, Kari Greer, photographer, and Daren Dalrymple, former Mendocino Hotshot Superintendent, ran into two young men, a former firefighter and a hopeful one, hiking the firelines at the site.
“When Daren and I were up there,” said Kari, “these two guys drove up and chatted with us briefly when we were shooting near the Gillaspy ranch. They said they were headed for the Rattlesnake site and they proceeded on to the Overlook. They must have stopped there, paid respects and read about the fire, and then walked around a bit from there.”
She said the two continued all the way up to Powderhouse Turn, while she and Daren stayed at the Overlook wrapping up the photo shoot. They watched as the hikers made their way along the stand trails and the staff ride locations, spotting them now and then through the brush and across the canyon on the north slope.
“It was interesting to see it to scale,” said Kari, “the size of the guys hiking in the chaparral and their pace as they traversed the landscape. They did the entire thing, even going down to Cecil Hitchcock’s cross at the bottom and clear up to Stanley Vote’s cross at the top. This showed us that they knew the history and were doing the full experience.
“Daren and I made our way up to Powderhouse Turn, and we caught up with them as they were hiking out, coming up the Access Route that goes downhill to the Missionary Spot Fire. We talked a bit more with the two of them and learned that José Gonzalez was here being mentored by Daniel Hartrum, who is a former firefighter, now a teacher. José was working hard; he was wearing a Pack Test Vest and carrying a tool. They told us he was hoping to get hired onto a crew and Daniel was giving him some field experience at the site.”
The book is very well written and edited, as usual for a John N. Maclean product. As mentioned above, much of the content is from the Fire and Ashes book published 15 years ago, but there is a good deal of new text and updated information covering what has transpired in the intervening years. The contributions by the three hotshot superintendents are especially valuable. I recommend this book for Students of Fire and all wildland firefighters for the lessons that can be learned, especially if they have not read the Fire and Ashes book. It would be a good reading assignment before participating in a staff ride at the site.
The black and white photos are helpful to figure out the context and geography. The electronic version expected late this summer or autumn will have Kari’s photos in all their glorious color. It will be available for Amazon Kindle devices or apps, and Apple products.
Above: Kari Greer, wildfire photographer, at a reception for the opening of her exhibit at the University of Montana May 21, 2018.
Tuesday we had an opportunity to interview Kari Greer about her “Facing the Inferno” exhibit of wildfire photography. It is on display for three days, May 21-23, during the Fire Continuum Conference at the University of Montana in Missoula in the University Center, room 227.
The photos in the exhibit are borrowed from the main venue showing her photography which was at the Prichard Art Gallery on the campus of the University of Idaho until April 14, 2018.
Kari is a very well respected and skilled wildland fire photographer who has specialized in the field for years.
Kari Greer’s photography will be featured during a two-month exhibit in Moscow, ID
Our favorite wildfire photographer is being honored with her own exhibit in Moscow, Idaho from February 16 through April 14. Kari Greer’s work will be displayed in the Prichard Art Gallery of the Bruce M. Pitman Center on the campus of the University of Idaho (map). A former firefighter, she maintains a Red Card while working on the fireline as a photographer under contract with NIFC.
Here is the announcement about the exhibit from the university:
“Facing the Inferno, the Wildfire Photography of Kari Greer,” will go in display Friday, Feb. 16, at the Prichard Art Gallery. An opening reception is 5-7 p.m. Friday. Greer, who works as a photographer for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, will speak about her work during a lecture at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15, in the Borah Theater of the Bruce M. Pitman Center on campus.
Greer, a former firefighter, specializes in wildland fire photography and editorial photojournalism. She has unprecedented access to aerial operations and accompanies fire crews working side-by-side on attack lines throughout the Western fire season. Her work examines the heighted fire activity seen across Idaho, Montana and Wyoming at a time when people are traveling further into the woods and the land surrounding wildfires is increasingly contested.
Below are a few samples of Kari’s photos we have used.
Above: Firefighter on the Brian Head Fire in southwest Utah. Photo by Kari Greer working with Great Basin Incident Management Team 2.
I saw this photo on the “Utah Fire Info” Facebook page, was impressed by it, and asked them the name of the photographer and if I could use it. They said yes, and it was taken by Kari Greer. “I should have known”, I replied.
We’re trying to find out the firefighter’s name. If anyone knows, please leave a comment. (UPDATE July 6, 2017: as several people told us in the comments, it is Noah Piepryzca, a senior firefighter on the Bitterroot Hotshots, a Montana crew that was first formed 54 years ago.)
Kari is a very accomplished photographer and is rather famous within the wildland fire community. She has had contracts with the federal land management agencies to take photos at fires and often embeds with crews to get action photos like you rarely see otherwise.
The report that the U.S. Forest Service wrote about last year’s fires in the Washington and Oregon reminded me of one of the best pictures of the fires in 2015 — the one you see above. The photo is at the beginning of the “Interactive Story Journal” which provides summary information from the main report.
We first used the photo on September 6, 2015 in an article with several other images by the photographer, Kari Greer. It was taken on the First Creek Fire on the west side of Lake Chelan in Washington and as you can see it shows a rising moon as the fire backs down the slopes.
We contacted Ms. Greer who told us it was taken above the Hale place in 25 Mile Creek on August 27 as the moon was coming up. The camera was on a tripod at about 9 p.m. with a 50mm focal length at 1/80 second.