Preparedness

California Blazes Take a Grim Toll on Firefighters and Other Responders

'This country … chews up firefighters. It has had a notorious past of being very hard on us.'

by Joseph Serna, Ruben Vives and James Queally, Los Angeles Times / August 10, 2018
Firefighters monitor a burn operation on top of a ridge near the town of Ladoga, Calif., on August 7, 2018. TNS

(TNS) - Ben Newburn faced a group of weary firefighters gathered a few mornings ago with one message: Safety before anything else.

The veteran fire management officer for U.S. Forest Service recounted the numerous firefighters who had lost their lives battling massive blazes in the region. There was Andrew Palmer, who died 10 years ago while clearing trees. And the nine firefighters killed in 2008 when their helicopter crashed in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, an incident seared in history as the “Iron 44 tragedy.”

“This country … chews up firefighters. It has had a notorious past of being very hard on us,” Newburn said. “So as you guys are going out there, working on whatever assignment you guys have, please keep in mind what you’re doing and the risks associated with that.”

The firestorms in Redding and elsewhere across California have taken a grim toll on firefighters and other responders.

A Redding firefighter, a bulldozer operator and a Pacific Gas & Electric utility worker have died during the Carr fire, which has destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Shasta County. Two more firefighters died while battling the Ferguson fire in Yosemite.

And on Thursday, officials announced that a mechanic with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who had been assigned to the Carr fire died in a vehicle crash in Tehama County.

The accident happened at 12:17 a.m. Andrew Brake’s Dodge Ram 5500 veered off Highway 99’s right shoulder and slammed into a tree, said Officer Ken Reineman of the California Highway Patrol’s Red Bluff station.

Commanders on the Carr fire routinely have warned of the dangers of driving on roadways clogged by a growing number of emergency personnel. For days, the streets in western Redding and the rural communities along the Sacramento River have been a gantlet for law enforcement and firefighters, who have had to negotiate narrow, winding roads that sometimes are half-blocked by massive PG&E trucks.

“The biggest hazard for this operational period is going to be driving,” Carr fire public safety officer Baraka Carter said during a morning briefing earlier this week.

It’s been an explosive summer in California, adding to a year of unprecedented fire destruction. Since last fall, thousands of homes have been lost and more than 40 people killed from wine country down to Ventura County.

In addition to the lost firefighters, four civilians — including two children — died in the Redding fire.

The fires in July and August have been fueled by record-setting heat, which has left brush bone dry and highly flammable.

The conditions have taken a particular toll on firefighters, who say they’ve been stretched thin as new fires keep breaking out.

On July 14, Braden Varney, a heavy-equipment operator with Cal Fire, died in rugged terrain while fighting the Ferguson blaze. Varney was driving a bulldozer cutting firebreaks when the machine overturned.

Two weeks later, Brian Hughes, captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots, was killed when he was struck by a tree while working with his crew to set a backfire — a tactic designed to limit a fire’s spread — on the east side of that same blaze. He was treated at the scene but died before he could be taken to a hospital.

Then, as the Carr fire exploded into Redding neighborhoods on July 26, Jeremy Stoke, a fire prevention inspector, was killed. Authorities said Stoke “died while working to ensure the residents of west Redding had a chance to escape the flames.”

Some firefighters have been moved from one blaze to another with little time to rest.

At the Mendocino Complex fire in Lake County, which this week became the largest in California history, firefighters were working 24-hour shifts every other day. They had to hike up treacherous slopes into the Mendocino National Forest with heavy backpacks to get to the leading edge of the blaze.

“It’s steep and sometimes dangerous,” Trey Rosenbalm, a firefighter with the Mendocino National Forest Service, said Wednesday from the fire operations center in Ukiah. “You don’t know what your next step is, whether you could go into a ditch or loose brush.”

Rosenbalm had arrived in Mendocino after battling a smaller fire to the north, near the town of Covelo.

On Thursday, crews across the state continued to battle more than a dozen wildfires that have scorched more than 600,000 acres, bolstered by an extremely warm July and years of drought that have left underbrush ripe for burning.

There were more signs of progress in areas including Mendocino: that 300,000-acre blaze was now more than 50 percent contained.

But in Southern California, the Holy fire grew to nearly 10,000 acres, racing to the edge of a subdivision in Lake Elsinore and forcing more evacuations.

On McVicker Canyon Road and Edgewood Drive, Todd Campbell sat on a ladder leaning on his garage. A second ladder leaned on the rooftop.
 

Despite the evacuation orders, Campbell had stayed behind to protect his two-story home. He was using garden hoses to water his roof, trying to keep an eye on embers that could spark spot fires.

“I put one out on my neighbors’ side,” he said.

For a while, the situation looked grim. Trees swayed as the winds continued to gust. Ash fell from the sky as smoke from the charred canyons reduced visibility.

Above, a DC-10 was dropping fire retardant and helicopters swooped down to make water drops. Still, the flames raged.

“It got to a point where it felt fruitless because of the intensity of the heat and winds,” Campbell said. “It was too overwhelming.”

In the end, the air attacks made a difference.

“The firemen have done a really good job,” Campbell said.

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(Serna reported from Redding, Vives from Lake Elsinore and Queally from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Alejandra Reyes-Velarde in Ukiah contributed to this report.)

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