Cal Fire's battle plan against record Mendocino Complex fire assailed in new report
The Ranch fire had been burning for upwards of three weeks across more than 600 square miles on Aug. 19, 2018, when a strike team of firefighters was sent deep into the rugged Snow Mountain Wilderness to burn a fire break.
The wildfire that began in Mendocino County and advanced into northern Lake County had already become the largest in modern California history and its spread wouldn't be fully contained for another month.
With dangerous weather conditions across Northern California and the deadly Carr fire still burning west of Redding, top decision-makers in the operation run jointly by the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire, the state firefighting and forestry agency, had decided on an aggressive plan to halt explosive growth of the Ranch fire, according to official reports. That included keeping the blaze out of the Cold Creek drainage, which could send the inferno hurtling toward communities along the eastern edge of the Mendocino National Forest.
But spot fires and a wall of flames soaring 100 feet above the trees trapped six members of the strike team, cutting off their evacuation routes and forcing them to flee for their lives until they were rescued. Five of the men were burned, one severely.
Their injuries could have been avoided had leaders with both agencies followed the advice of federal risk management experts who recommended letting the fire expand into wildland areas to give crews time to build effective containment lines to protect communities, according to a scathing report released this week by an Oregon-based nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. The group's mission is to urge fire agencies in this era of more frequent catastrophic wildland blazes to change tactics in fire-adapted wilderness ecosystems by letting remote areas burn.
“Where do we put people to confront fire? Where do we invest (firefighting) resources? That should be near homes and communities, not wilderness areas that are rejuvenated by fires,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of the group, also known as FUSEE, an acronym that refers to the handheld torches used by wildland firefighters.
Sea change in tactics
The report's authors, former firefighters, said last year's Ranch fire and the smaller, nearby River fire, collectively known as the Mendocino Complex, was emblematic of the need for a sea change in the way wildfires are fought by Cal Fire and other state fire agencies. In remote areas, they are calling for a pivot away from “aggressive suppression” and toward a policy that allows fire where it benefits natural resources, particularly in an age of climate change and increasingly unpredictable blazes.
Using interactive maps and official documents, the report echoes a call dating back to at least the 1960s for a reassessment of firefighting strategies on vast swaths of public land. Pioneering scientists of that time noticed fire was key to the health of much of the western landscape, where both periodic smaller fires and episodic larger blazes helped clean out undergrowth, germinate dormant seeds and replace aging forest stands.
That body of science and evolving policy intersected with public outrage in 1994, when 14 firefighters died while attacking the South Canyon Fire in Colorado, forcing agencies to reckon with the tactical decisions and wildland policies that contributed to the disaster.
Fast forward nearly a quarter century, to a dry grass pasture in Potter Valley, where a Mendocino County rancher last summer was trying to plug the hole of a yellow jacket nest on his land. He struck a metal stake into the ground with a metal hammer, and, just a few minutes after noon on July 27, ignited the largest wildfire on record in California.
Family suing Cal Fire
The Ranch fire started in Cal Fire's jurisdiction, part of the 31 million acres of privately owned rural property and wildlands the state agency is charged with protecting from fire. The fire spread into Lake County to the east and the vast Mendocino National Forest, eventually reaching into Colusa and Glenn counties.
The Ranch fire cost two men their lives - Utah battalion chief Matthew Burchett, who was killed when an air tanker dropping fire retardant toppled a tree on him, and Jeremy Appleyard, an Oroville man hired to work on environmental cleanup after the fire was fully contained Sept. 18.
Burchett's family filed a lawsuit against Cal Fire and the aircraft company this week, blaming them for negligence in training and communication that led to his death.
The authors of the critical report on the Mendocino Complex said they believe fire commanders appeared to have been influenced by an already devastating fire season in choosing an aggressive approach to fighting the Ranch's fire as it spread into wilderness.