By Vic Bedoian
The Creek Fire started small on the evening of Sept. 4, the beginning of a Labor Day weekend no one in this region will ever forget. Within two days, the blaze had scorched nearly 80,000 acres and was growing rapidly. By deadline time, the fire had grown to nearly 280,000 acres with 27% of the perimeter contained.
Over the past seven years, the Sierra National Forest has had five of the largest fires in its history. But in addition to being one of those top five biggest fires, Sierra Forest Supervisor Dean Gould says it has by far been the most aggressive in terms of fire behavior,
“We had a number of days of triple-digit temperatures,” says Gould. “We had very low relative humidity. We had the fire start in a very unfortunate location where it could make an uphill run and really get some momentum going very quickly. There is certainly enough fuel for it to consume.
“And then the winds, we had some pretty significant winds to really get it going, so that’s why we saw that significant growth that we did that first day.”
Sierra National Forest was the epicenter of six fateful years of drought and a bark beetle infestation that created a massive fuel-load of dead trees and dry understory of chaparral, that many forest watchers feared could one day explode into a conflagration.
Brian Scott, a public information officer for the Great Basin Incident Management Team, relates that in his 20 years as a firefighter he has never seen this much bug kill and such a massive amount of tinder. Those conditions, he says, created a self-fueling inferno with winds so powerful that the rising pyroclastic mushroom cloud of smoke generated its own lightning storm that sparked even more flames.
Chris Bump, the local Cal Fire operations chief, says the steep and rocky terrain of the San Joaquin River canyon makes it hard to get crews into the fire zone to establish containment lines. The volatile behavior of this fire presents an ongoing challenge to crews on the front line.
Cal Fire’s Seth Brown explains the tactics that frontline firefighters are using, “Typically, a strategy while we’re fighting these large forest fires would include the firefighters directly attacking the fire when it’s safe to do so. Or a lot of times we back up and we indirectly fight the fire with fire control lines and contingency lines, and we let the fire come to it.”
Atmospheric conditions soon developed, creating a high-pressure system that pressed dense smoke close to ground level making for hazardous air but helping slow the fire’s growth. Brown says firefighters could attack the fire directly in some areas and build fire control lines in case the fire intensity should increase.
Cal Fire crew member Edwin Zuniga explains that the grueling, exhausting work of fighting wildfires takes a toll. He typically works in the Lake Tahoe region but has been away from home for weeks fighting fires up and down the state.
Zuniga’s work day is 24 hours long. Much of it requires trudging up and down the steep terrain, digging containment lines and setting backfires. All the while clothed in heavy and hot protective gear.
He says when they do have time off, constant workouts are necessary for firefighters to stay in top physical condition. “It’s rough. It definitely takes a toll on the body, but that’s why we work in 24-hour periods. We work for 24 and then we’re off for 24, and we take advantage of this 24 hours off to sleep, drink more water and to eat some food and get ready for the next step when we are coming back out for another 24 hours.”
Even the military has been deployed, and California’s Army National Guard has played an important role in the multi-agency fire suppression effort. They have already rescued hundreds of stranded hikers. And they’ll keep looking for others who might still be in the mountains. There are five military helicopters now on duty.
Colonel David Hall is commander of the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade based in Fresno. He notes there is similarity between combat operations and the military’s role supporting fire operations, “You know, primarily it’s been a search-and-rescue role. As you know, we ended up affecting the rescue on mammoth pools. And in addition to that we have additional helicopters that are assigned to this incident doing water dropping operations.” Also joining the firefight are 250 U.S. Marines.
The Creek Fire’s impact on people has been considerable. Virtually all Community Alliance readers likely know someone who has been affected by the evacuation or have lost a home to the conflagration.
As soon as the fire flared up, local sheriff’s departments implemented a massive evacuation effort, according to Tony Botti, public information officer for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department, “We’re estimating that this has impacted about 10,000 homes and about 30,000 people. We had a lot of people to get the message to in a very short amount of time, but I think it went extraordinarily well.”
Botti says that sheriff’s departments are now patrolling the burn zone to prevent possible looting, as well as checking in on people who have not evacuated.
The Creek Fire is still raging. It’s devastating impact on people and property is still too early to account for. How it will shape the future of the Sierra National Forest ecosystem is also unknown. One thing is certain —in the era of climate change and global warming, the single largest fire in California history is a game-changer.
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at email@example.com.