BERRY CREEK, Calif. November 15, 2018 – A strike team from Nevada County has been assigned to the Camp Fire in Butte County for the past eight days.
Engines 57 Peardale Chicago Park, 5269 Ophir Hill, 88 NCCFD, 21 Higgins and 2B Grass Valley are now assigned to Division QQ, in the Berry Creek area on the southern end of the fire. Nevada County Consolidated Fire Captain Jared MacElhannon, the strike team leader trainee, took some time to explain what the alpha strike team went through since the fire began.
Initial attack – a very, very long shift
The Camp Fire was reported at 6:32 am and by 11:00 am the Nevada County Strike Team was assembled. The engines gathered at the Penn Valley fire station and left for the assignment in Butte County.
The temporary command post (ICP) was set up in Magalia and the team was assigned to structure protection duties in Magalia around 3pm. Sustained winds at 30-40 mph with gusts up to 45-50 mph would be their constant companion for the next 50 hours – until Saturday around noon – one of the longest shifts ever for these firefighters.
“We were trying to confirm that the houses were empty and people were safe. We assisted a person that couldn’t get the car out of the garage because they had lost power and they were unable to open their garage door. Once we had the door open, they were able to leave,” MacElhannon says.
He continues, “We woke people up, because power and phones were out and some people didn’t realize what was going on. We tried to go for structure protection but it was mainly protecting people.” Attempting to do structure protection, saving homes and businesses in the conditions they experienced, “the window of opportunity diminishes very quickly.” Lives are always their first priority.
Fortunately, the weather has changed since then. By Monday afternoon, wind gusts had greatly diminished. That doesn’t mean firefighters can let their guard up. Summed up in the acronym LCES (Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes and Safety zones) situational awareness is a must. But even Temporary Refuge Areas (TRA) were scarce during the first few days. These areas are not designated safety zones where firefighters can safely retreat to but rather areas where the fire’s intensity is not as great.
“We are posting lookouts, someone who can see the fire, fire behavior and weather. If it crosses the dozerline, or comes over a ridgeline, that’s a trigger point – get in the rigs, move out of the area.” MacElhannon explains.
Watching the closest engines, making sure it doesn’t catch fire
He then goes on to recount a harrowing experience during the initial attack phase. The team sat at an intersection off Skyway for 45 minutes to an hour. The fire came up from one side of the canyon and spotted to an unburned area. Given the erratic winds, the fire was coming from every direction, it felt like being in a fire tunnel. Everyone was in their respective engines and watching the closest engine to make sure they were not on fire. The bumper on the strike team leader’s truck sustained damage and there are scorch marks on the engines.
“Once it calmed down, we were able to get down to a water feature where the outside temperature was about 20F cooler than the intersection where we sat. The outside thermometer in our rig showed 117F in the TRA. When you touched the glass on the windshield, it was hot.” MacElhannon recalls.
Running on fumes
Water supply is a key in firefighting but the water agency’s infrastructure was damaged heavily. After a few hours, firefighters would open hydrants and nothing came out. Water tenders had to go a long way to get water to keep the engines supplied, slowing their efforts down.
The electrical infrastructure took a huge hit, power poles on the ground, low hanging power lines over the road. Meanwhile, propane tanks sounded like bombs going off with their ventilation systems not designed to function in those conditions.
Fuel for the engines was another difficulty that needed to be overcome. The CAL FIRE station in Magalia had a fuel reserve but that ran dry after a while. Fuel trucks eventually made it to the vicinity and the engines were able to resupply with diesel.
Real food was in short supply as well. While each engine carries a number of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) these packs supply calories but hardly qualify as food – in this reporter’s opinion.
Mechanical problems to overcome
A fuel filter took one engine out of service, but another one made a ran to Chico and firefighters replaced the faulty part, bringing the engine back in service.
Another hazard, major potholes and eroding roadways not only makes driving conditions in the smoke and at night very difficult. One engine’s radiator was damaged on a particularly bad road, but again firefighters managed to fix the radiator leak and get the engine back up and running.
Making the call
Deciding whether to defend a structure is dependent on many factors, foremost the accessibility and immediate surroundings. Is there defensible space, are pine needles off the roof and can firefighters access the driveway? MacElhannon compared the Magalia area to portions of Nevada County “You had to be on your game, make that call. Especially in these subdivisions, they were very similar to Alta Sierra, loops on loops with cul-de-sac ends and no easily defined exits.”
Sharing and caring
Each engine carries a large cooler chest full of water that firefighters shared with animals approaching the rigs. They rescued many cats and dogs, picking them up and driving them to a RiteAid store down the road where animal evacuation staff picked them up. MacElhannon said while they were sheltering in the TRA on Skyway, a cat hang out with them. “The cat looked like he felt calmer sitting with us.” The feline had escaped from a house and headed towards the engines, proving good instincts – the house did not survive the fire storm.
Different terrain, same purpose
“Now we are in country that is not as developed, with poorly maintained dirt roads, many unmarked roads and homes and very difficult access. But we are here for a purpose,” MacElhannon said while the radio crackled in the background. “We are doing good, we’ve been getting good rest at camp, the guys are doing well. I know it’s cold at home and it’s just as cold here. It was 39F in camp this morning. But we are warm, we have plenty of food and we are ready to go back out.”
Asked if he had any message for folks back home, he stated: “An Evacuation Plan is key, make it, be familiar with it, practice it.”