Notes from the Inferno

by Bruce Anderson, July 2, 2008

Cool temperatures, gentle winds, Mendocino County's steadfast volunteer fire departments, and impromptu neighborhood groups, have combined to hold the line on the most menacing of Mendocino's fires, now in their second full week.

Throughout the County, volunteer firefighters and hurry-up neighborhood groups have proved to be essential to the overall counter-attack, doing everything from helping each other pack up if they're suddenly ordered out to cutting fire lines around vulnerable homes.

Firefighters, volunteer and professional, have typically been on the line from seven in the morning until seven in the evening, and they're still out there and fire season has just begun.

The Governor's declaration last Thursday that Mendocino County existed in a state of fire emergency only implied what most of us know by now, which is that Mendocino, given its small population, and given that our numerous fires have so far only threatened small settlements of the county's outback residents, the state's limited supply of firefighters, equipment and water must, out of triage-necessity, be dispatched to other more heavily populated, more immediately threatened, areas of the state. Bush then issued his own national emergency order the next day. These declarations are supposed to result in more manpower and equipment dispatches, but given the number of fires burning in the state — about a thousand — and given that Mendocino County so far has done well with the manpower and equipment already here, the declarations are mostly good for post-disaster forms of relief.

The current fires are scary enough, but fire bureaucrats are more worried about the rest of the summer in our tinder-dry state. Already here in Mendocino County there are water shortages which will inevitably become shorter during the summer months. Anderson Valley's fires have exhausted a number of ponds, many of which were already severely depleted by last spring's emergency frost protection draws.

Up on Signal Ridge and down in Hungry Hollow, excavators, large tractors that can pull trees out of the ground like so many rotten teeth have been used to uproot trees to both clear fire breaks and to create fire breaks by piling them up in massive berms in the flame's paths.

The Mendocino Redwoods Company has hired its own firefighting crews and helicopters out of Montana to beat back fires on MRC land, about twenty people and two helicopters.

Whole neighborhoods have spent many nights of fitful sleep.

"One eye open. That's how I sleep," a Hungry Hollow man described the tension he feels at a fire that threatened his place. "I fall asleep and the smell of smoke wakes me up."

And the fires are still out there, some of them officially "contained," none of them all the way out, thousands of acres of brush and tree stumps, a million golden glows burning in the dark, waiting for the summer heat and a strong wind to send them howling into full flaming life, roaring through decades of accumulated tinder and into the ridge and hillside neighborhoods of Anderson Valley, Laytonville, West Ukiah, Covelo, and Rockport.

For now, as of Tuesday night, nine fires are minimally contained, two are moderately contained, four are substantially contained. Minimally contained means they are burning unfought.

Last Wednesday, the morning of June 25, the Mendocino Lightning Complex, as our fires are collectively designated, had burned approximately 19,200 acres, with 107 fires, several of them unaddressed and growing larger, doing the damage. CalFire said five percent of the blazes had been contained.

A week later 37,000 acres have burned, there are 43 fires still active, containment is put at 38%. CalFire described the overall situation as "fires continue to increase in size and threaten communities and critical infrastructure."

The cost of the battle in Mendocino County is placed by CalFire at $9,924,000.

Seven firefighters have suffered minor injuries.

More and more professional firefighters and equipment continue to arrive at staging areas around the County. Here in Anderson Valley, the Mendocino County Fairgrounds is temporarily homebase to some 160 firefighters.

There have been no air drops of flame retardants in the Anderson Valley. Water bucket helicopters have been periodically active when the smoke layer clears enough to allow adequate visibility.

The persistent Orr Springs fire has burned into Armstrong Woods and continues to flow east towards Ukiah.

The Cliff Ridge fire west of Boonville-Philo, in the Cold Springs Lookout area, has been stopped at 4,561 acres, but its sister blazes, Sugarloaf and Mallo, are only moderately and minimally contained, burning slowly but steadily to the west of the Cliff Ridge area. Combined, they've burned about 8,000 acres. Sugarloaf and Mallo present an ongoing hazard to the neighborhoods in Anderson Valley's west hills.

The locally famous "Rock Pile House" on Cliff Ridge was saved by a combined effort of the Elk Fire Department and the flying buckets. "That pilot was amazing," a neighbor marveled. "The water basket seemed to touch the trees, and just about every couple of minutes he was back at the Gundling's pond for more water. That house would have been gone without him."

The Navarro or Flynn Creek Fire was held at Flynn Creek. It never did jump Flynn Creek Road to get into Rancho Navarro, but it came close enough to prompt most residents of the ranch to pack up and leave until the fire was declared over on Sunday.

A reader, early last week, had written, "Just a quick note to let you know that we're living a nomadic life right now so communication may be spotty for awhile. The fire has approached Flynn Creek in a number of places. The ridge our house sits on is just on the other side of the creek so, to be safe, we've been sleeping nights at friends' homes. Thus far, we've been able to return to our place each day to continue packing. Until things settle down, our lives will remain in this state of flux. Here's hoping the wind remains calm."

Our correspondent described what he and his Navarro neighbors contributed to the fight to stop the fire at Flynn Creek: "Tuesday evening I worked with neighbors clearing a firebreak along Flynn Creek around mile marker 3 on Flynn Creek Road. Comptche fire chief Larry Tunzi advised us on what to do. The fire was creeping down Navarro Ridge and was within 50 yards of the creek. If the fire jumps the creek and Flynn Creek Road, it will be big trouble for all of us at Rancho Navarro. We really need the wind to stay down. I was very impressed with Chief Tunzi. He was helpful, informative, knowledgeable, and pleasant, unlike some other fire folks I have encountered. He invited residents to attend their meetings at 6pm at the Comptche fire station."

The wind stayed down, and the fire stayed on the west side of Flynn Creek Road. It has since been declared defeated, which means it's down but not all the way out.

"The active portions of the Navarro Ridge fire appear to have split north and south. It's kind of like we've had a huge controlled burn going on over there," the Navarro man wrote.

Comptche Fire's Tunzi has been the recipient of many compliments.

"I gotta say," another admirer wrote, "Larry Tunzi has scored many points in my book this last week. He showed moments of brilliance and complete leadership. Our department has had quite an experience with this incident. Comptche Fire was put in charge early Saturday morning. CalFire bailed and put Tunzi as the incident commander. That meant our one engine and a private water tender oversaw the southern end of the fire. Mendocino and Fort Bragg added units to the north side of the fire. We patrolled the fire lines for the last four days making sure no jumps took place. Even today we put out several spots that had rekindled. CalFire should have brought in more resources but none are really available. Hot spots remain and embers are still flying. The situation could still turn nasty if there's enough wind and not enough firefighters. It's contained but has the potential to get going again."

The Navarro Ridge Fire was stopped at Flynn Creek but it, like all of the fires presently described as fully contained, must be constantly monitored for flare-ups.

The troublesome fire at the east end of Nash Mill in the vicinity of Hungry Hollow, has been beaten into submission but continues to be monitored by the Anderson Valley Volunteer Fire Department. That fire was officially dubbed the Oso Fire. An oso, Spanish for bear, does wander through Nash Mill occasionally, and the terrain between Hungry Hollow Creek and Mill Creek is much more hospitable to a critter than it is to a firefighter wrapped in Nomex protective gear lugging equipment and pulling fire hoses.

By last Thursday, Rancho Navarro residents were starting to return to their homes after semi-evacuating to the homes of friends and neighbors elsewhere in the Valley and on the Mendocino Coast. By Saturday, the evacuation warning had been canceled.

According to one resident, the firebreak "on the northwest side of Flynn Creek Road up and over a knoll below the burning ridgeline was holding and firefighting resources were being moved to other higher priority fires."

To the southwest, Jack's Fire on the Mountain View Road pegged to mile marker 9 close to Manchester, had threatened nearby structures. Farther east towards Boonville-Philo, fires were going strong from mile markers 14-20.

A Manchester caller said, "the KOZT website is actually more accurate or timely than CalFire's."

We think that throughout the fire emergency, Theresa McNerlin, Public Information Officer for the County, has done a truly excellent job in putting out timely, accurate information. Everything you hear on KZYX and other local radio stations is either coming from her or CalFire's Tracy Boudreaux, who also presents timely updates in a calm, comprehensive manner.

Everyone has pitched in to do what they can, from sending donations care of the Anderson Valley Market and the Redwood Drive-In, to dropping off cash and baked goods at the Anderson Valley Fire Station in downtown Boonville, to brush clearing for neighbors, to helping people pack whose homes are threatened.

2nd District supervisor's candidate Estelle Palley Clifton, a professional forester, spent two days helping a Navarro friend clear brush from around her house. Mrs. Clifton is an experienced firefighter, but when she approached CalFire to offer her services she was turned down, a rejection suffered by too many fully qualified locals.

Governor Schwarzenegger is proposing a 1.25% surcharge on property insurance. The money raised, an estimated $100 million, would provide funding for calamities, fires especially, and would cost the typical property owner another $12.60 a year on the high end of his insurance bill to $6.75 on the low.

Supervisor Michael Delbar issued a lengthy complaint reflecting the widely held local sentiment that bureaucratic unreason has retarded the firefighting effort in the County.

"With 72 wildfires burning out of control in Mendocino County, and CalFire resources stretched dangerously thin, many county residences and resource lands are threatened by fires burning without any firefighting equipment in sight," Delbar said. "While CalFire is mustering all resources available that have met stringent regulations, many more pieces of heavy firefighting equipment lay in wait to be dispatched to fire lines," the indignant supervisor continued.

"We have over 900 residents threatened by these fires, and we have already lost over 27,000 acres of valuable commercial timberlands and watershed resource lands. At a time when every available piece of equipment should be out fighting these fires, we have to fight the out-of-control Sacramento bureaucracy that is keeping these firefighting machines at bay.

"Safety regulations on heavy equipment have drastically increased over the last several years, forcing many private equipment owners and operators to forgo the thousands of dollars in added equipment necessary to meet these increased requirements. This has resulted in a drastic reduction in privately owned equipment eligible for deployment to the front lines. While adequate safety equipment is crucial for the protection of the equipment operator, in a situation like the one facing Mendocino County residents, common sense should prevail," said the usually incommunicative supervisor.

"Here we are in the midst of a historical disaster, and help is literally sitting by idle because Sacramento has tied the hands of the firefighting professionals working to save our homes and property."

Caller last week: "Don't you think it's irresponsible of the Kate Wolf Festival organizers not to call it off?"

The annual big name folk concert is held near Laytonville every year, and this year fires and smoke characterize the venue which, if you came in late, is Wavy Gravy's Hog Farm just north of Laytonville. Let the record show that the AVA issued a traveler's advisory to the sole person we knew who intended to drive from Sacramento to Rancho Gravy for the event.

A man called KZYX to say a mountain lion, apparently disoriented by Friday's heavy smoke, had trotted along side his pick-up on Mountain House Road outside Hopland. The call-in hour was thoroughly interesting and deftly managed by host Doug McGinty.

KZYX might consider an expansion of their open line call-ins during this unprecedented event so people can relate their fire stories, which I'm sure many listeners find consistently fascinating. Retreating down 101 last Friday, slowly making my way through the smoke as I listened the articulate McGinty deftly move the inevitable chronophages off-air without insulting them, a Greenfield man called in to wonder why "able bodied athletic people couldn't do some night time firefighting work. The regular firefighters go home at night, but the fire keeps on burning. We could be out there helping but they want us out of there, too."

Overheard at Anderson Valley Market: "The good thing about the fires is that they've made people aware, made people clear brush and do all the other stuff we should do in the summer, and this is going to be a very long summer."

Jay Johnson of the invaluable Ukiah Valley TV, an online collection of filmed supervisor's meetings, and other local current events, has devised an inexpensive air filter any old body can make and install in his home. The County's stores are either out or about to run out of manufactured air filters, which tend to the expensive, but you can make one yourself on the Johnson Model by checking out ukiahvalley.tv.

When you see our local firefighting volunteers around you might take the time to thank them. They held the fires in check until outside help could arrive. Without them, a lot us might me sleeping in the Cloverdale High School gym.

Anderson Valley's volunteer firefighters get $9 per call, a stipend aimed at getting at least a little gas money in their pockets. That stipend, incidentally, assumes the calls aren't days in duration. Our volunteers, like the paid professionals, have been on our fires for two weeks now.

Here's who to thank in Boonville: Jan Wasson-Smith; Jim Minton; Paul Soderman; Thom Elkjer; Bob Roland; Justin Laqua; Dennis Toohey; Jack Ridley. Philo: Joe Gowan; Scott Fraser; Rusty Pronsolino; Don Gowan; Rodolfo Ibarra; Jeffrey Peters. Navarro: Judy Long; Bones Newstead; Garth Long; Holly Newstead; Kyle Clarke; Kirk Vodopals. Yorkville: Sarah Farber; Craig Heilig; Marcelino Santamaria; Fred Wooley; Tina Walter; Andres Avila; Tim Holliday. Fish Rock: Larry Mailliard; Carlos Espinosa; Sarah McCarter; Sandy Mailliard. Signal Ridge: Richard Bristow; Bob Guiliani; Olie Erickson. Holmes Ranch: Roy Laird; John Keevan-Lynch; Fred Martin; Gunter Ruffler.

Predictably, local fire chief Colin Wilson is being criticized by some, defended by others for issuing an evacuation advisory early last week. His critics say he was a week ahead of himself, his defenders say it made people in the danger zones understand the seriousness of the situation. CalFire's advisories came three to four days later, depending on the area.

Chief Wilson, meticulous even in the face of catastrophe, was heard on area scanners Friday morning requesting trash bags "so we don't leave a lot of litter out here."

Last Thursday at 3pm, CDF's Howard Forest headquarters issued an ominous bulletin that said, "A fire storm weather warning is in effect from Friday through Saturday." No fire storms occurred.

Ukiah's air quality last Friday was described by national weather reporters as the worst in the nation. Air quality throughout the County was terrible most of the weekend, but cleared up nicely Sunday only to heavily re-smoke Monday morning. By noon Monday, the smoke in Boonville was as eye-watering prevalent as it was the previous Friday, the nadir smoke day so far. By Monday evening, though, the smoke was gone, only to return Tuesday morning with varying intensities.

Mountain View Road, seldom traveled in the best of natural circumstances, was reopened Monday at noon after having been closed Sunday so firefighters could ignite back fires.

From a correspondent in Alderpoint in Southern Humboldt County: "We had one relatively clear day but now the smoke is thicker than I've seen it in 36 years here. I can barely discern the trees 30 yards away. Naught to do but button up the house, suck O2 and read P.G. Wodehouse."

Informally, CalFire is telling media they expected to have "sufficient resources" in Mendocino County by the front part of this week. Resources will be sufficient, they say, to beat all the fires into permanent extinction if existing fires don't get bigger, the winds don't come up, temperatures remain relatively cool, the gods spare us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *