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Fighting Fire with Fire

As a kid, the term "fire" conjured up thoughts of Smokey Bear, sternly warning,
"Only you can prevent forest fires" and the image behind him of blackened stumps and
homeless animals. This last month the term took on a whole new meaning.

Story and photos by   MELLIE CORIELL


[photo of fire smoke view]FOR THE LAST 27 YEARS MY EXTENDED FAMILY AND I HAVE OWNED FIVE WATERS, a 197-acre parcel, called an in-holding, located within the Trinity National Forest near Denny. We've hosted retreats and campouts for Unitarians, Quakers, a variety of private and public schools, Humboldt State University field classes, veterans', women's and healing groups, children and family camps, and weddings for our friends.

To say Five Waters is lovely is an understatement. It is a valley bordered on its long side by the New River and kissed by five creeks. Mountains that are steep steeper than the slope of an A-frame roof rise around it with Ironside Mountain being the largest to our south. We count eagles, pileated woodpeckers, dippers, ringtail cats, bobcats, mountain lions, bears and steelhead as our neighbors.

In all our years, fire was the specter we avoided at all costs. We had a scary VW bus fire in the late 1970s and a small orchard fire in the early 1980s. In both cases, all family and friends at Five Waters mobilized and did what was necessary to put them out. We were lucky in the first case and, in the second case, more prepared. As a result of our healthy respect for fire in this fire-prone country, we have always had strict rules governing fire use.

Just this summer as we finished putting in a 2,500-gallon water tank and several two-inch lines, one family member said, "Now we're really ready if we ever have another fire." Someone else added, "Yeah, it's not a matter of `if' but `when.'" A day later, Monday, Aug. 23, at 3:15 p.m. lightning struck the back side of Big Mountain, the mountain that dominates our viewscape to the east.

We learned later that the flurry of thunderstorms that spawned our fire, the Onion, also started the Fawn, the Megram and approximately 2,200 others in Northern California. Many fires went out or were put out, but 39 continued burning for some days. The Fawn and Megram were located north of us in the Trinity Wilderness Area and, although they are part of our "Big Bar Complex" of fires, they are fought differently with wilderness-enhancing Minimum Impact Suppression Techniques (MIST). They later burned together and are now referred to as the Megram or the "Migraine" by some firefighters in rare but wonderful moments of levity.

I didn't see the lightning strike or the first tendrils of smoke, but my son Stein Coriell and his friend, Jess O'Brien, did. They said the rain came down heavily for an hour afterward but the smoke persisted. I arrived back from my town trip on Tuesday morning to be greeted by a huge column of smoke that seemed to be just over the mountaintop.

Stein, Jess and I ran around like three little anxious keystone cops hooking up water lines at our Cliff House, irrigation pipe in the garden and cabin, getting out fire hoses and discussing evacuation plans. We had an overwhelming urgency to prepare for the fire that might be upon us in minutes.

Finally, we drove to a place in the meadow where we usually have reception for our emergency bag phone and we called my brother Roger, our family's Eagle Scout. We asked him to bring the last connectors and fittings to hook up the fire hoses and to supervise us in driving the tractor and making fire lines with the harrow. (Also, since he's saved everyone's life in the family at least once, he's a comforting person to call in time of crisis.)

I later drove out to Hawkins Bar and Willow Creek trying to get information about the fire and why the air tankers weren't flying over dropping retardant, as they almost had for our orchard fires. No one knew much. I called Carol, our Ironside Lookout, who told me that the fire was burning near us, but that we were safe for the moment. She explained that 15 local firefighters who were available at Dailey Ranch and Denny, some miles up the road from us.

What I have since learned about fire-fighting resources is that, when fires begin, personnel and equipment from across the United States are assigned in the order that they are requested and with the priority of protecting people and houses first and forests next. Sometimes you don't get exactly what you need right away.

[photo of firefighters creating fire break by hand]Creating a fire break by hand.

Once assigned to a fire, resources are committed to that fire and usually are not released, even to a nearby fire, until the first fire is controlled. If helicopters are needed, resource consideration includes both the chopper and the number of flying hours that a pilot may safely be in the air. Thus, resources that sometimes appear to be available may not be.

It's like being in a "spike camp" dinner line expecting to get a super burrito. If the cheese runs out, you may get more beans to replace it; if the beans run out, you may get more rice, and so on. If you're unlucky enough to be at the end of the line and more people have come to dinner than expected, you may get only a tortilla, although signs of super burrito largess surround you.

That Monday, we at Denny were last in line for thunderstorms and last in line for fire-fighting resources.

Carol reassured me that we'd be notified in plenty of time if we needed to evacuate, but I drove to Dailey Ranch to talk to firefighters in person. Dailey Ranch faces another side of Big Mountain and the fire from that aspect looked more widely spread out with many smaller "smokes" coming down the mountain. It didn't look like it was charring everything in its path. It seemed to be moving slowly. When I could get past my fear of fire, I realized that this force of nature is pretty awe-inspiring and much more varied in its path and intensity than I had envisioned.

The next day we went about our chores as usual, got equipment and water lines ready for the fire and kept an apprehensive eye on the smoke. Early on Thursday, we were greeted by almost 50 guys in yellow shirts. There were two busloads of guys and equipment and several truckloads of U.S. Forest Service people, including Duncan Baird.

Duncan explained that they were part of an interagency task force out of Big Bar and would be responsible for protecting our structures. With our consultation, they would start by digging protective "lines" around our structures. Then, as the fire got closer, water tankers and other personnel would come. We were invited to an afternoon informational meeting in Denny in which plans for establishing the entire "containment line" would be laid out. The meaning was clear. The fire was coming, but we would not face it alone.

The Denny meeting was helpful but not altogether easy in an environment of current fire anxiety where chronic distrust of the government, especially the Forest Service, runs high. We met the first "Big Bar Complex Interagency Team," including the "incident" manager or commander, safety officer, information officer, structure protection officer, and Joyce Anderson, USFS district ranger for Big Bar and Weaverville.

The team is organized like the military with a chain of command, including incident commander and fire managers, operations, branch and division supervisors who coordinate firefighters on different geographical fronts. Using maps of the fires, the team's visiting leaders explained what they proposed to do to contain and fight the Onion fire safely with an emphasis on protecting people and structures.

Good questions were asked concerning the large acreage encompassed by the containment line, road creation and rehabilitation, fire fighting in steep terrain and wilderness, fire in "blowdown" and other high fuel areas, "backfiring" and future salvage logging. (See glossary of terms.)

It was explained that, given the extremely steep terrain, a circle encompassing 23,000 acres is about as close as firefighters can get to contain the fire and to fight it safely. To date and holding, it has encompassed only 16,602 acres and very little backfiring was necessary except along the line.

At that meeting, the proposed containment boundaries included the New River, a natural fire break, an existing old logging road that leads up to Ironside Mountain Lookout, and a stretch of ridgetop near Five Waters. This line was well-chosen. It did not add roads that could later be used for salvage logging. It did add about one mile of dozer line that will be rehabilitated. Joyce Anderson let us know at the meeting that logging is not a future option in the area of the Onion Fire because it is designated as "late successional reserve" and as "a key watershed" in the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan.

[fire map]That evening the fire crested Big Mountain in a hot breezy end-of-the-day, uphill rush. The flames shot up two to three times the height of the old 200-year old firs, a "crown fire" for sure. Rog and I drove out in the pasture and called absent family members. Our group of friends and family who were visiting stood awe-struck with us by the power and beauty of such a rare natural event for our valley. I had a private moment of silence in honor and appreciation of the old growth trees and the mosses, slimemolds, mice, snakes and scorpions that might have perished as part of the ongoing mosaic of new emergence.

We've had a variety of exceptional fire-fighting people at Five Waters over the last six weeks. Larry Wright began on the fire as division supervisor and progressed to branch coordinator for our stretch of the New River up to Denny. He listens carefully to and clearly cares about the people under his protection. It amazes me that, after six weeks, he's still letting us know what to expect and giving us his best judgment regarding how long it will last and what we can do to mitigate bad outcomes. You would think he'd get tired of such demanding interactions, given the ongoing stress of his other assignments, but he continues to include us. In a surprising way for this community, he's gained our trust. Candy Dillingham, our Denny information networker, is also a gem, distributing "Incident Action Plans" daily and answering questions.

Simple considerate acts of visiting firefighters continue to warm my heart and they will be with me for a long while. That first day of firefighter visitation, the Ferguson hand-crew from Oregon made a terrific impression, as the men worked together with great rapport and efficiency. In addition to clearing a line around our buildings, five young men who spoke only Spanish extended the line and cleared brush around a huge old cedar that we had been told was sacred a burial site for a Chimeriko chief. Until they rotated out, I followed the assignments of Virgil's and Antonio's crews on the east side of the fire and was concerned for them all as the fire "spotted" over the line there. They were safe.

I also appreciated the four CDF tanker crews who were with us for a number of clear and smoky days. Two of the four engines were from McKinleyville (Engine 1283, captained by Angie) and Fortuna (Engine 1264, captained by Art), a third was from southern Humboldt and the fourth from San Diego. Angie had started fire fighting when she was 18 and a student at Humboldt State. After graduation, she loved it too much to give it up. Art made a wonderful real-food cucumber salad with sesame dressing that I have since made for others. Jason knew most of the dozen kids in an old birthday party photo on our wall as teammates from Arcata High even though he'd not met Stein and Bryn, my sons. On the last clear day, four of the guys (but mostly Truman) split four truckloads of firewood for me, and 18 of the guys obviously enjoyed our shower. Daryl, captain of the San Diego group, thoughtfully brought in government-issue toilet paper when our supply got low. Then the smoke came and we all sat around in alert readiness for days.

The smoke was then and still is very bad. Everyone has a cough or is kept awake at night by teammates' coughing. The ash burns holes in your truck's paint job and your lungs. A damp bandana across the nose and mouth helps not really.

You get so you don't think straight. New crews rotating in to Five Waters may have trouble finding their way out again in the thick smoke, as evidenced by one new guy who drove right by the exit gate and ended up half a mile in the wrong direction. Little black flies hover around faces, driving us crazy.

[photo of chopper dipping into pond]Choppers dip buckets in pond.

When the BLM and Wyoming tanker guys came in with plastic spoons attached to strings around their necks, I thought we had a group who had really lost it due to smoke. Their response was that the Denny Camp cook had run out of silverware a few days before and they'd had to eat with their fingers. They were taking no further chances.

My greatest fear, as I got to know our firefighters, has been for their safety. Once, I was alone at Five Waters on a clear afternoon with helicopters overhead. We have some deep water holes for dipping and choppers, by this time, were a common occurrence whenever smoke cleared. I knew from the sound that several were back.

A stiff breeze came up and I walked out to enjoy the air and sun and watch them work. To my surprise, four helicopters came into view above the meadow. We'd never had that many at once. Three had double rotors and the fourth one had a single blade. All had water-laden orange buckets swinging in the breeze and they were much too close together for my comfort.

As I watched, the smallest one peeled out of the crowded airspace and tried to rise over a steep ridge that he'd skirted on previous trips. It seemed he wouldn't clear the ridge. I found myself with both hands on my heart chanting, "Turn around and come on back, turn around and come on back." To my relief, he did. He came back to an uncongested part of the meadow, promptly released his water load and set himself down. After some minutes when he didn't lift off again, I walked out to make sure he was OK, reviewing my CPR training on the way. Finally, I got close enough to see his face. He gave me a thumbs-up and a smile and left about 15 minutes later.

A second dicey instance involved a handcrew and Mike Howerton, a safety officer trainee whose job it was to locate and rebuild a 4-inch wide, 1850's mule trail situated 150-200 feet above the river. We had not maintained that trail upriver for 12 years and it had all but disappeared.

On a clear day it would have been easier; they would have been able to see us on the meadow, albeit at great distance, and could have merely worked toward us. It was very smoky, however, and that made the situation much more difficult and dangerous.

No one could tell exactly where the trail went after it disappeared. At their request, the CDFers in the trucks on Five Waters worked at sending orienting sounds, like blowing the horn and sounding the siren. The horn didn't help, but the siren did. Then I got Bob, a tanker chief, started along the trail from our end to go meet them.

About 10 minutes later Bob returned with Mike, who marked the trail. You could hear the crew chopping and digging and coming along out there in the smoke, but it took another half-hour before they were all safe. The trail was later used as a path to check for "spots" as the fire burned down to the river.

We know that fire fighting is physically dangerous. It has gotten even more dangerous as the Fawn and Megram have joined and jumped western containment lines. Early on when a fire is very small, the "smoke jumpers" may do the most hazardous work. Shortly thereafter, the "hot shot" crews can be at great risk, particularly if the fire is in a wilderness area or in steep and rugged country like that near Devil's Backbone. Often they employ the "coyote tactics" of packing in or being air-lifted in to camp and work on the line.

My eavesdropping over the scanner to conversations among command and division groups has brought home that danger. The sound-bite messages that fly back and forth represent the tip of the iceberg of problems that arise and are solved regarding everything from not enough food and water, to the accelerating fire that has begun surrounding the new spike camp. The dialogue is terse and measured. These people are trained and have lots of experience in tense situations but they are at great risk.

Career forest firefighters also make sacrifices in the area of relationship and family. They're away from home and family for long months at a time and they're working in chronically dangerous, stressful situations. As more than a few have told me, readjustment is often not easy. For those coming up through the ranks, they're away for the summer and return to small, remote communities where they work in the winter.

[photo of firefighters taking a break] Firefighters take a break on the deck at Five Waters.

Over a short time, the people they share summers with start to become their family. They meet again and again in Florida, Texas, Washington, Oregon and California, wherever fires pull them. After a time, it's difficult to break away. In essence they have to divorce their fire family to be able to form the more traditional kind of family that you and I know.

The Onion Fire is near containment. Thankfully, it has crept down-slope during the night and worked its way back up under reduced fuel conditions during the day, burning out as it goes. The smoky inversion layer, low temperatures and high humidity, while threatening to firefighters and residents, has minimized old-growth loss.

The effect of low-intensity burnout and Big Mountain fire on the viewscape of Five Waters has not been of a uniformly charred landscape and blackened stumps. Rather, we see a mosaic landscape dominated by big trees, less green understory and occasional rows of trees with brown needles or leaves. It will be interesting to see the heat intensity photos of the mountain to get a real feel for nature's transformational and rejuvenating patchwork. What new dead trees will the golden eagles nest in?

For us Dennyites the fire is not over yet. While the Onion is nearly contained on our southern river side, the Megram approaches us from the north. It has spilled over Happy Camp Mountain and is expected to come down Panther Creek to arrive at any moment. Larry promises to stay. We're thankful to have him and the crews. The current joke is that if we survive this latest assault from the opposite side, we'll be fireproof for the next 30 years.

As of presstime Tuesday the Big Bar complex of fires has consumed about 100,000 acres in Humboldt, Trinity and Shasta counties. The Megram fire, currently active, is moving south, southwest and west at about 100-250 feet per day. Its westerly point is located only three-quarters of a mile from Hoopa. To the south, it has burned to within two miles of Denny where a core group of firefighters remain.



BACKFIRING: To widen the containment line by 50 feet or more, firefighters may do low-intensity BACKFIRING in very small manageable pieces when it is cool, humidity is relatively high and there is no wind. When the containment line is located on a ridge, backfiring is really a BURNDOWN.

BAER TEAM assesses damage to water quality, watershed protection and vegetation management; evaluates dozer lines, hand lines and water drafting sites and treats them with erosion control methods.

BIG BAR COMPLEX INTERAGENCY TEAMS: Teams from various agencies (USFS, BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, BIA, CDF, etc.), 35 states and 20 Native American Nations in seven states have rotated in and out of positions about every 21 days as the smoke and harsh conditions take a toll. On this fire, we're on our third rotation of people in some cases.

BLOWDOWN: Piles of old growth fir up to 7 feet in diameter that blew down in a 60 mph windstorm in 1996; these were not salvage logged and provided fuel that ignited when the Megram breached the southwest containment line.

BURNDOWN: A small fire set in bushes along a ridge and allowed to creep down the hill in the underbrush (often overnight), removing fuel that might power an uphill firestorm the next day when the humidity falls and winds rise. Ideally, the burndown fire is low, cool and slow; thus, it does not pose a threat to the big trees. A tall, hot and fast uphill fire is more likely to jump into the crowns of the old-growth trees, making spread of the fire more likely.

BURNOUT: A fire spends all its fuel including REBURN fuel. COLUMN: Smoke that rises many feet into the atmosphere indicating that a fire is burning with great intensity and heat. May indicate a crown fire or the burning of a huge fuel source, such as the BLOWDOWN.

CONTAINMENT LINES: Handlines, dozer lines, roads or topographic features such as rivers that delineate the planned boundaries of the fire. Chosen to minimize risk to people (firefighters and residents) and structures, to be defensible positions, and to maximize preserving important biological, cultural, and historic resources. Determined by professional fire managers who have a vested interest, special experience, and knowledge of the area. For example, representatives of the Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers National Forests, Hoopa Tribe and ORCA (Oregon & California Interagency Incident Management) Team determined the placement of recent containment and contingency lines to the west of the Megram fire.

COYOTES: Firefighters who camp where they work for up to three days having water and MRE's (meals ready to eat) delivered by air or horse packer.

CROWN FIRE: High intensity fire that ignites the tops of large trees.

HOT SHOTS: The "Green Beret" of firefighters who work in rough terrain and under dangerous conditions often using COYOTE tactics.

INCIDENT: The fire or complex of fires, in this case the Onion, Fawn and Megram fires.

INCIDENT ACTION PLAN: A daily plan (35-40 pages long) of objectives, organization and division assignments with control objectives and special instructions, safety message, fire weather and fire behavior forecasts, air operations summaries, medical plan, human resources messages and maps.

LINE: A scraped or dug area at least 8 feet wide, taken down to bare dirt or rock along its entire length.

MIST METHODS: Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics are used in wilderness areas in which use of bulldozers and foam or fire retardants are prohibited.

MIST includes creation of handlines, use of aerial waterdrops, clearing old logging or mining roads to use as fire breaks and varying routes to avoid creating a road when transporting crews to the fireline.

REBURN: Needles or leaves that have fallen off scorched trees become fuel able to re-ignite, moments to days after the first burn occurred.

ROLLOVER: Trees at the ridgetop fall down the steep mountain lighting little fires as they fall.

SAFETY ZONES: Designated safety areas free of hazards to firefighters.

SMOKE JUMPERS: Firefighters who are first on the scene of a small fire (20 acres).

SMOKES: Tendrils of smoke that indicate that a low-intensity fire is smoldering along in the underbrush or that some small fuel source is burning,

SPIKE CAMPS are located in or near wilderness areas near fireline construction and are generally supported by helicopter or horse packer .

SPOTTING occurs when fist-sized firebrands are launched across the containment line, sometimes falling as far as 2.5 miles away. Firefighters often MANAGE THE SPOT by encircling the fire and treating it as a small fire.

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