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Cal Fire’s battle plan against record Mendocino Complex fire assailed in new report

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Read the full report from Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology here

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.

Read the full report from Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology here

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.

Cal Fire officials this week said they didn’t have an official response to the group’s claims. Michael Mohler, Cal Fire’s deputy director of communications, said he wasn’t familiar with the report or the organization behind it. Mohler said his agency welcomes insight from outside groups that might help them improve operations, but he defended Cal Fire’s approach to firefighting and its actions on the Mendocino Complex.

“We don’t feel that (fire) suppression activity was an issue with the entrapment with firefighters,” he said.

Mohler said a key takeaway from an after-action analysis of the Mendocino Complex fires was the need to improve how Cal Fire and the Forest Service work together on big blazes. That involves balancing the agencies’ different responsibilities, he said.

This was underscored in a February report created by a team made up of federal, state and municipal fire officials that described tension between the agencies as a factor in the decisions that sent that strike team on a grueling six-hour drive into remote terrain.

“The Cal Fire-Fed rivalry was evident on this fire and I believe it was a detriment to the operational tempo and production,” said one fire official interviewed after the incident.

One of Cal Fire’s core missions is to protect life and prevent destruction to private property, and the agency is known worldwide for the imposing combination of manpower and machinery it can dispatch when fires threaten to enter areas where residential communities and wilderness merge.

“Those are areas where we have to engage, and there were a lot of areas like that on the Mendocino Complex,” Mohler said.

Failed to heed experts

The U.S. Forest Service, which declined to comment on the report or the Mendocino Complex fire, controls federally managed public lands where firefighting commanders have for decades allowed some wildfires to burn where they don’t threaten life or private property.

The Ranch fire’s spread was formidable, growing some days by tens of thousands of acres, and sending massive plumes of smoke that blanketed the skies covering hundreds of square miles. Even after it was contained, flames continued burning and smoldering deep within the forest, and it would take until Nov. 7 before fire officials declared the fire inactive. Suppression costs for the pair of Mendocino Complex fires were reported late last year at an estimated $200 million.

The report’s authors — all with some firefighting experience and some retired after long careers in the fire service — said the command teams failed to heed the recommendations of risk assessment experts brought in to develop models for how the fire might grow based on terrain, weather and other data.

Created in 2017, these teams are part of a new federal program aimed at improving strategic decisions for how to fight and manage large fires using science. During the Mendocino Complex fires they presented incident commanders with three options for how much to allow the fire to burn and where and provided probabilities for success in each.

Commanders chose the most aggressive and risky option, a plan to keep the fire out of the Snow Mountain Wilderness that risk management analysis teams said had a low-to-moderate probability of success, according to the report.

“The ICs (incident commanders) felt the agency administrators didn’t want more acres, more smoke, more communities involved, or more forest burnt,” the report stated.

The report also argued the operation cut ineffective dozer lines that crisscrossed federal forest lands adapted to burn, leaving “indelible, long-lasting scars on the Mendocino National Forest landscape” and hampering the natural landscape’s ability to heal.

“The fire was growing 30,000 or 40,000 acres per day,” Ingalsbee said. “Yet the ability to contain those fires flatlined; the more money was put into it the bigger the fire got. At some point that’s the definition of insanity.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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