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The Fire that Wouldn’t Die: A Drought Nightmare Come True

FRESNO BEE: Blaze found unexpected ways of staying alive amid thick forest that hadn’t burned in a century.

Written by Mark Grossi Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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Firefighting commander Rocky Opliger can dial directly into the Rough Fire on his iPhone 6s to track his location via satellite as he walks the perimeter for a detailed look. He can stream live video feeds from helicopters and aircraft – in 3D.

From any angle, this monster wildfire east of Fresno is a zombie. Opliger, a highly experienced incident commander, and other leaders who preceded him here, say the Rough Fire has repeatedly come back from the dead.

Over six weeks, the fire has found unexpected ways to stay alive. It has burned parched moss on boulders to slip through defenses, blasted through cracks in fire lines and made an unlikely crossing of the Kings River.

As San Joaquin Valley cities filled with smoke for several days in September, firefighters waged a desperate war against a fire cutting through moisture-starved grasses, chaparral and timber.

“It was burning in the most brutally steep places you’ll find in this country,” said Opliger, who heads an expert national firefighting team called in for the Rough Fire. “The fuels are so dry. The fire finds them. Fire always finds fuels this dry.”

The gentle rain and lower temperatures last week helped firefighters and technology finally gain the upper hand. The Rough Fire soon will not be a threat, leaders say.

Public land managers feared this type of blaze from the very beginning when a lightning strike sparked it in the early evening hours of July 31. At the time, the fire had burned only a few acres on a remote ridge between Rough Creek and Deer Creek at the southern edge of the Sierra National Forest.

Now, at more than 141,000 acres, it is the 15th largest wildfire in recorded state history, and the largest ever in Fresno County.

Opliger says the size of the fire – with a suppression price tag of about $100 million – was a product of drought, dead trees and a steep, rugged landscape. It probably will continue to fester in a few places until the snow flies later this fall.

“You might still have some spots of smoke next spring,” Opliger said.

Contrary to rumors, there was never any thought of allowing the fire to burn vegetation to thin out an overgrown forest, Opliger and other authorities say. They say they were always in suppression mode with this fire.

They had good reason to be concerned after four years of drought. California fires already have torched more than twice the acreage burned in 2014, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The U.S. Forest Service in April released a chilling report saying an aerial study reported an estimated 12 million trees dead in the southern Sierra Nevada and Southern California. The estimate was several times higher than any other year. And ground zero as a fire hazard was east of Fresno in the southern Sierra.

At the time, Matt Dias, assistant executive officer of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, said, “This is an emergency.”

When the Rough Fire began to spread in August, thoughts turned to protection of people, property and groves of the last surviving giant sequoias on the planet.

Researching the area, authorities learned that this slice of forest had not burned in at least a century, meaning there would be nightmarish, thick underbrush and places jammed with dead and diseased trees.

Jumping the River

The Rough Fire was spotted from Buck Rock Lookout, which is in the Sequoia National Forest, south of the Sierra National Forest. The little fire was one of several lightning-spawned blazes that warm July evening, and firefighters were able to quell the ones they could reach.

In the Hume Lake Ranger District of the Sequoia forest, district ranger Teresa Benson says her staff fire expert, Shelby Charlie, knew there were no roads or trails in the vertical landscape where the then-small Rough fire burned.

No one could safely get in there quickly, and an aerial attack would not have been enough in the dry vegetation, authorities say.

Within a few days, Charlie began to suspect the small, meandering fire would jump the Kings River – a major waterway with no record of having fires get past it, Benson says. But something in the swirling breezes and the movement of the stubborn little fire got Charlie’s attention.

“Shelby Charlie was born and raised in this area,” Benson said. “He was a ‘hot shot’ here many years ago and knows this area very well. We decided somewhere around August 5 to come up with a plan to protect Hume Lake, the sequoia groves and everyone in the district. It turned out to be a good idea.”

By August 18, officials say, the fire had indeed jumped the river, threatening Hume Lake Christian Camps and raising the possibility of it shifting into Kings Canyon National Park toward Cedar Grove and Grant Grove, home of the prized General Grant Tree, the second-largest tree in the world.

Benson says firefighters were able to burn vegetation and divert the fire from Hume Lake. But the fire’s smoke at times turned the air hazardous at the Hume Lake camp facilities and, in Kings Canyon National Park, buildings in Wilsonia and Cedar Grove.

During the next several days, Benson says, firefighters had to cut through vegetation and brush 12 feet high to create open areas where the fire would die down. But the blaze seemed to always find a small corridor, sneak through the lines and flare up again as it found more vegetation to burn.

“The fire would sprint through a little hole in the fire line,” she said. “Sometimes, the fire would lay down, but then a burning pine cone would roll far enough to reach more fuel, and it would start up again. It was frustrating after putting in days of work.”

Firefighters would pull back and establish another line, only to see the fire find its way to dense stands of dead trees and snags.

“Our whole staff has worked around the clock on this fire,” she said. “We’ve been here the whole time working on this fire. I’m proud of what we have done.”

Heat Wave, Then Rain

As smoke plumes drifted over foothill communities and eventually into the San Joaquin Valley, more questions arose about stopping the fire back in early August when it was much smaller.

Opliger, who spent 38 years with the U.S. Forest Service and has fought fires all over the country, says an aerial attack with fire retardant would not have stopped the Rough Fire.

“Aerial assault is a great tool,” he said. “But you need boots on the ground to establish the fire lines, especially in these dry conditions.”

Even with experts and computer programs taking into account low moisture, lack of humidity and other factors, the fire defied predictions. Sierra fires usually slow down at night as humidity rises, but it was too dry for that. The Rough Fire continued expanding, menacing some areas, destroying four buildings, forcing evacuations and leaving seven firefighters injured.

The Rough Fire became even more relentless in the early September heat wave, growing many thousands of acres in a single day. Roads were shut down and more people were evacuated in a wider region as the fire turned west toward the valley. Authorities split the fire into three divisions as thousands of firefighters battled it.

On Monday, the weakening remnants of Hurricane Linda came ashore and spread into the southern Sierra, as well as the valley. The dampness and lower temperatures calmed the Rough Fire, and the fire lines held.

By midweek, Opliger says, he knew firefighters would have containment within a week or so. Containment was near 70 percent by the end of the week. He says firefighters and equipment are slowly being reassigned to other wildfires in California and elsewhere.

The concern now is the massive fire lines opened up by bulldozers around the fire. In a big downpour this winter, mudslides could develop in the fire-scarred areas, and the fire lines would become part of the problem.

Including the Rough Fire, there are eight large wildfires burning in the state, and 13,000 firefighters working on them, Cal Fire reports. The Rough Fire is the largest, and Opliger says it could have been much worse.

“This was fuel- and terrain-driven fire,” Opliger said. “We’re just lucky we didn’t get a lot of wind.”

Read more coverage of the California drought and water issues in the Fresno Bee here.

Top image: A helicopter drops water at Yucca Point as the Rough Fire burns near Kings Canyon National Park on August 19. While aerial firefighting was a critical part of the effort, firefighters on the ground ultimately got the big blaze under control. ( Eric Paul Zamora, Fresno Bee)

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