Anatomy of a Fire Fight

As acres burn by the tens of thousands, crews from around the countrybattle the flames



They were celebrating down in Hoopa when the storm rolled in on a warm, smoky Saturday. It was Aug. 10, in the middle of the annual Sovereign Day celebrations, when the tribe celebrates its independence with a parade, games, a rodeo. It had been a bad air quality day; smoke from the Butler Fire up north hung in the valley.

The rodeo was underway when the lightning struck up in the mountains. "All of the sudden, the sky just gets dark," said Allie Hostler, the Hoopa Tribe spokesperson and editor of the Two Rivers Tribune. "It was intense." People scattered out of the open-air rodeo arena to find shelter.

The power went out in Hoopa that night. The next morning, 21 lightning fires were burning in the Trinity Alps Wilderness area. Local fire crews managed to put out 10 of them. The others merged into what is now the "Corral Complex," the most virulent of three big groups of fires scouring the mountains of Humboldt, Trinity and Siskiyou counties. The Corral fires broke out later than the still-ranging Butler Complex and the nearly quenched Salmon River Complex, and they have blackened the fewest acres so far. But the Corral Complex worries firefighters the most. It is crawling and leaping across terrain too rugged for crews to reach, and it has the potential to threaten more homes than any of the other blazes plaguing the smoke-filled mountains east of coastal Humboldt.

When fires this big rage across wilderness lands, firefighters pour in from all over the country, and temporary cities of logistical support spring up — places with hastily scrawled signs and pallets full of gear. Crews scramble across the back country, bulldozing lines they hope the flames won't cross, or setting backfires to strategically deny the bigger blaze the fuel to advance. And with every summer thunderstorm bringing more lightning strikes, the wildfires could take new twists for weeks to come.

The fire camp on Kimtu Road in Willow Creek is quiet on a Thursday morning. It is clear and bright today, unlike Wednesday, when smoke turned the sky a sallow gray and made the light orange.

The 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. day shift has already left, going up into the mountains to build lines and lay hose. The night shift sleeps, tucked into small tents. Out by the medical yurt, crews are unpacking gear. IV bags full of something clear are pulled from cardboard boxes and laid on the back of a serious-looking red and black utility vehicle. Nearby, an ambulance waits, ready to whisk an injured person away to St. Joseph Hospital. So far, the camp hasn't had to use it.

Robert Russell, who is in charge of the medical unit, says the most common injuries are sprains and strains. "You see anything and everything," he says. Today, he and his team are preparing a rigging system so they can reach people who might fall into ravines and off slopes, which are steep and treacherous here.

The yurt is in the middle of the fire camp, a motley sprawl of tents, trailers and modular buildings that has taken over Veterans Park. More than 1,000 firefighters and support workers sleep and eat here. The park's tennis courts are now the supply area, stocked with fire-resistant shirts, green pants, hardhats and other supplies resting on plastic folding tables. Nearby more than 20,000 bottles of Gatorade and water sit on pallets. "It's a small city with everything you need," said Eric Garcia, a public information officer on the Corral Complex fire. The breeze shifts, and the faint smell of workers pumping out the portable toilets wafts through the air.

When lunchtime comes, members of the California Conservation Corps deliver sack lunches to every trailer — brown bags with meat, white bags without. Corps workers, aged 18-25, get paid minimum wage. They provide support for camps at any kind of disaster, and even respond to fires. That's according to John Button, who's one of the people in charge of this group. You can tell because his baseball cap is yellow, while most everyone else's on the corps is blue.

Modular administration buildings are grouped together in an area Garcia calls "downtown." Paper address signs on some of the buildings indicate that this is Main Street. Here's the communications trailer, bringing in Internet and phone lines; the copy and printing shop; the incident commander's office; food; finance; computer specialists and even human resources.

Carlton Joseph is one of the incident commanders managing the Corral Complex, along with Rob Mendes of Hoopa. "This fire, all of our lines are well away from the current fire perimeter," Joseph says. They can't send anyone to directly confront the flames because the terrain is too steep, and standing deadwood from a previous fire could fall on firefighters. "We're having to back off," he says.

This will be Joseph's 40th fire season working for the Forest Service. Firefighting is in his blood. "My father worked in the Forest Service back in the mid-50s," he says. He was a crew boss on the 1956 Inaja Fire near San Diego. His crew was on the fire line night shift when the fire exploded and surrounded some of his guys. Joseph's father made it out, but 11 firefighters died, including his best friend. Joseph is named after him.

"My dad used to tell stories about the Forest Service," he said. Joseph joined CalFire at age 16 and the Forest Service at 18. "And of course I liked it. I must have since I'm still here."

Part of Garcia's job is to post updates on the fire all over Willow Creek and beyond. After making a stop at the copy trailer, the "mobile Kinko's," he calls it, he grabs a sack lunch and fills his cooler with fresh ice and bottles of water. Garcia drives his rounds in a green Forest Service truck, posting the latest report and a fire map in store windows and on bulletin boards from Willow Creek to Salyer. In Trinity Village a white-haired man sitting on his porch flags down Garcia as he drives by. He asks where the fire is, and if it's getting closer. "Keep us all safe," the man urges as he steps away from the truck.

Garcia is posting information on a window at the Hawkins Bar Volunteer Fire Department when Josh Schertzer drives up. He's the assistant chief here. His crew is working the helipads at Hawkins Bar and Salyer. "They're running us thin, too," he says.

Voices come over the radio every 30 seconds or so, in a variety of American accents. They give weather updates, request supplies or decide on strategies. After Hawkins Bar, Garcia drives north and up, up, up in the direction of Denny. The air is cooler but smokier, and the sky gets gray as he drives closer to the fire and the promised afternoon thunderstorm rolls in.

As he drives higher, the land drops more dramatically from the road, and it becomes clear why this is a tough fire to fight. The terrain is so steep it's hard to imagine how the trees cling to the sides of the mountain. Some trees carry black scars from the 1999 Megram Fire, which burned 125,000 acres before it was snuffed out by winter storms.

Farther up the road, the trees carry more and more fire damage until, at the top of the ridge, the forest is nothing but white skeletons of trees spotted with scraps of blackened bark. Tiny green firs and brush fill in the spaces between the giant dead trees.

Garcia stops when he reaches Division Whiskey, a team taking a break from clearing the fire line with a bulldozer. Shawn Doggar is the division supervisor. "We're putting a lot of indirect fire line in," he says, in a drawl that evokes his home in Tallahassee, Fla. The top of this ridge is the closest anyone is getting to the Corral Complex fire, which is burning on the mountainside across from this one. It has been creeping down from the top of the ridge, a little more every day. The strategy is to clear a line and wait for the fire to burn its way there. "You can't actually get to the fire," Doggar said. "It would jeopardize crew safety."

He's been out here for 10 days, so he has four more days before he's off the line. He gets two days of rest before he's available to be called out to another fire.

Further down the road, Division X-ray is clearing a fire line with a big green machine called a feller buncher. It's wrestling with a tree as Garcia drives up, the smell of mangled fir mixing with the scent of smoke. From this ridge, the fire can be seen smoking on the opposite mountainside. There are no flames, but smoke pours from between the trees. Ash is falling from the sky.

There is a distinct line of red dirt cleared of brush running alongside the road — the morning's work by Division X-ray. An open orange water tank lies ready. When the fire gets here, water from this tank will be pumped through lines of hoses. When the fire meets the line, with no fuel, it will go out. Hopefully.

Kevin Morris is in charge of safety for Division X-ray. He knows the dead standing trees are unstable, and can fall down without warning. And lightning can strike. The afternoon storm is here, and thunder booms in the distance. Morris has been working on fires for 32 years, since he was just 19. The most challenging part of worker safety is getting the crews to pull out when they're actively fighting a fire, he says. "It's always difficult to pull crews back. It's in our blood. We want to work."

To the north, the Butler Fire continues to burn at the edge of Humboldt and Siskiyou counties. It has been burning since July 31, and combined with the now-extinguished Dance Fire, has burned more than 20,000 acres.

Two camps supply crews fighting the Butler Fire, the main one at Aikens Creek Campground, just south of Orleans, and a second next to Forks of Salmon Elementary School. It is hot and smoky in early afternoon at Aikens Creek. As Joe Mazzeo, a public information officer for this fire, drives his rental car up Highway 96, the clouds start to roll in. By the time he gets to Salmon River Road, raindrops are hitting the windshield.

The night before, Mazzeo says, people at a community meeting in Orleans applauded the firefighters who put out the Dance Fire, which started on July 29. Now, as he drives through burnt remnants of the Dance Fire, a house with a green lawn and yard sits just off the highway, in the middle of a burned clearing. Along Salmon River Road, where crews have back burned to stop the fire from spreading, the hillside is various shade of brown, with a couple green trees cropping up here and there. Mazzeo says that's called a "mosaic."

Along a one-lane stretch of Salmon River Road on the way to Forks of Salmon, security officers control each end so heavy equipment can be moved through more easily. The road winds along the side of a steep mountain, with sheer cliffs falling away to the river below. There is no guardrail.

The station for ground support is a little way before the elementary school camp. This is where equipment comes to get fueled and repaired. A Les Schwab truck from Eureka sits idle, filled with tires in all sorts of sizes.

At first, the Forks of Salmon was set up as a "spike" camp, a mini-camp where fire crews rest for the night. But as the fire changed direction, more and more supplies and support were sent here from Aikens Camp. There's now a copy and printing trailer, an operations yurt, a medical yurt and more.

The medical yurt has the air conditioner on; it's still warm outside, despite the rain. The yurt is stocked with a few green army cots and a plastic folding table full of supplies — mostly calamine lotion. The strong smell of Technu fills the air.

In the ops yurt, where the next attack against the blaze is planned, walls and tables are covered in maps. "The ops guys go 'git-r-done,'" Mazzeo says. And when they need to, "Safety guys go 'whoa.'"

As the rain picks up, Mazzeo starts to get nervous. When a hillside has been burned, plants no longer anchor the rocks and dirt, and rain increases the odds of rock falls. He is anxious to get back to Aikens Camp, where he is staying, before the rain gets any worse.

On the drive back, a voice comes over the radio reporting thunder and lightning to the south of the fire, where Division Echo is working. They're pulling the crew off the mountain.

There's a tremendous thud as a falling rock hits the car's trunk.

Mazzeo tries to call it in over the radio, but the airwaves are crowded. "Now I have to do all the paperwork," he complains. The car only had 310 miles on it when he rented it in Redmond, Ore. The lady at the front desk told him to bring it back in good shape. Fire crews are rough on rental cars, it turns out. Mazzeo once arrived late to a fire and got the second-to-last rental car. He said every box on the "damages" sheet was checked except for one, the roof. A firefighter had rented the car last, he was told. At another fire, Mazzeo bottomed out his rented Subaru on a rough road and dented a piece on the undercarriage. It was so covered in mud by the time he brought it back that no one noticed.

Mazzeo tells the security officer controlling the one-way traffic about the rock that hit his rental car. On the way back down Highway 96, the announcement comes over the radio that Salmon River Road is closed due to falling rocks. No one is getting out of Forks of Salmon tonight.

Overall, the fires at the Corral Complex, the Salmon River Complex, and the Orleans Complex, which has included the Butler Complex and the now-extinguished Dance fire, have ravaged more than 47,000 acres of forest so far this summer. The estimated containment date for the Butler Fire is Sept. 15, and Corral containment is expected on Oct. 1.

More than a thousand people are working to put out the Corral Complex, with more arriving every day. But there's nothing they can do about the smoke.

Hoopa declared a state of emergency because the smoke was creating unhealthy conditions, Hoopa Vice-Chair Ryan Jackson announced at a community meeting on Thursday night. The meeting got out just after 8 p.m. Warm summer dusk settled into the valley. To the east the Corral Fire raged on. To the west, the sun sank into smoke-filtered glory. The western sky burned orange and pink and red.

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