Response to Eiler Fire limited by resources

Response to Eiler Fire limited by resources

04 October 2014

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USA — Lassen National Forest officials took a measured approach during their initial response to the Eiler Fire in eastern Shasta County despite acknowledging the dangers presented at the time from extreme fire conditions and heavy fuel loads in the area, according to interviews and records obtained by the Record Searchlight.

Representatives for the Forest Service have characterized the attack on the fire as aggressive and full-force, but dispatch records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the fire start was not the highest priority as resources and equipment were devoted to other major wildland fires burning nearby.

Numerous requests for air support and water drops during the first 24 hours of the fire never were fulfilled, and additional firefighters requested by crews on the ground arrived late the next afternoon as the fire approached 1,000 acres in size, Forest Service records reveal.

At most 58 firefighters were combatting the fire while it was on the wilderness alone.

In the days after smoke from the Eiler Fire was spotted on July 31 the fire ballooned in size. It rolled out of the Thousand Lakes Wilderness area on Aug. 1 and into the town of Hat Creek where it destroyed eight homes, two commercial buildings and eight other structures. The communities of Burney, Johnson Park, Cassel and Hat Creek remained under mandatory evacuations for nearly a week, and the fire went on to burn more than 50 square miles before being fully contained on Aug. 25, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Lassen National Forest Supervisor Dave Hays has stood by the response, noting that 98.7 percent of fire started on federal lands in California over the past year were suppressed in the initial attack and only a very small percentage grew into major wild fires.

“It’s important to remember that in this northern region of California we had nine major fires at the time,” including the Bald Fire burning portions of the Lassen National Forest, Hays said. “But it’s fair to say that if resources weren’t limited the response to the fire would have been different.”


A team of eight elite smoke jumpers were the first on the scene of the Eiler Fire about two hours after its smoke plume was spotted at 4:03 p.m. on July 31. The fire burning in the depths of the Thousand Lakes Wilderness south of Burney was estimated at about half an acre in size with “decent potential” to spread, according to dispatchers.

Two air tankers immediately requested for water drops on the fire were not made available, records show, but a helicopter was dispatched and doused the flames for about three hours before nightfall.

Six firefighters made the three-and-a-half-hour hike in from the nearest trailhead that day, arriving in time to work about two hours before starting the long trek back out at 9:40 p.m.

That night Battalion Chief Dave Grossman requested an additional helicopter, 20 more smokejumpers and a 20-person hand crew to join fight the next morning. He estimated the fire at about 4 or 5 acres in size, “crowning and running to top of Eiler Butte,” according to the logs.

Records show 24 additional firefighters — a 20-person Firestorm hand crew and four smokejumpers — were dispatched at 8:37 a.m. the next day, arriving at the fire shortly after 1 p.m.

The team of eight smoke jumpers started constructing fire lines Aug. 1 at 7:41 a.m., records show. The crew noted the fire had grown little overnight, but continued to burn in heavy fuels.

The next dispatch entry, at 10:21 a.m., put the fire at 90 acres with multiple spot fires.

An hour later, an air tanker was requested and Supervisor Hays authorized the use of fire retardant in the wilderness area for the first time. “Just keep the retardant out of the lakes,” the logs noted.

Hays said an air tanker dropped 2,941 gallons of fire retardant on the fire after being dispatched at 11:47 a.m. Later that evening two other tankers delivered a combined 2,864 gallons of retardant.

Two hours after the Firestorm firefighters arrived, at 3:16 p.m., the fire had grown to 950 acres, spreading from tree top to tree top and continuing to shoot off spot fires.

Shortly after 4:30 p.m., Forest Service dispatchers were notified that Hat Creek might need to evacuate. About 20 minutes later local volunteer firefighters and sheriff’s deputies started going door to door and clearing the town, according to dispatch records.

A few minutes later the Forest Service records note that all firefighters including a Big Bear Hot Shots crew was clear of the fire zone, though no other related dispatch records show the hot shots crew working the fire.

Shasta County Fire Chief Mike Hebrard heard the evacuation orders over the radio and diverted 10 fire engines passing through Burney on the way to the Bald Fire.

“We were very fortunate to have two strike teams moving up Highway 299 at the time, so we sent them there,” Hebrard said, noting volunteer companies from Cassel, Burney and Old Station were called to action at the same time.

Eight minutes later four additional strike teams — each with five engines and 15 to 20 firefighters — were dispatched to help with structure protection. In a matter of minutes the number of people in the fire fight doubled the personnel assigned over the previous 24 hours, and the battle to save Hat Creek was on.


“It should be pretty obvious to anybody looking at the situation that they (the Forest Service) had pretty limited resources — lightning strikes had hammered that part of the state,” said Steve Fitch, a retired fire instructor and former supervisor of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Lassen National Forest officials were also dealing with the Bald Fire burning further to the east, about 8 miles southeast of McArthur, and the Day Fire burning into the Modoc National Forest to the north of that. Other major wildfires were burning in the Klamath and Shasta-Trinity national forests.

“I think they sent the right types of crews. The smoke jumpers and hot shots are the best you’ve got,” Fitch said. “The problem is they didn’t have enough resources to put the fire out, and how do we solve that problem?”

For years now the National Forest Service has grappled with budget constraints, often being forced to spend money earmarked for fire prevention work — such as thinning timber and fuel loads in the forests — on active fire suppression as blazes burn hotter and longer due to the buildup.

As Shasta County Supervisors noted during an August meeting, the Forest Service now spends more than 50 percent of its yearly fire protection budget on fire suppression, compared with 13 percent in 1991.

On Aug. 26, just one day after the Eiler Fire was fully contained, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pass a measure that called on the federal government to do more fire prevention work to lower the risk of future catastrophic wildland fires, which have burned about 245 square miles in Shasta County over the past five years.

Hat Creek District Ranger Kit Mullen said shortly after the Eiler Fire ignited that fuel build-up in the Thousand Lakes Wilderness area was a known issue, but finding funds for fire prevention and fuel reduction work there had been a challenge for the forest unit.

“In a wilderness area we need appropriated funds — tax dollars — because there are no commercial means to get wood out of a wilderness area,” Mullen said at the time.

Hays noted that aggressive fire suppression tactics over the past century had contributed to a buildup of fuels and fire intensity in many forested areas.

Those facts are supported in part by research from Pennsylvania State University Professor Alan H. Taylor, who spent parts of two years in the 1990s studying fire-scarred tree rings from 65 fires that hit the Thousand Lakes Wilderness area between 1652 and 1942.

Currently, there are two nearly identical bills in Congress that aim to restructure the way fire emergencies on federal lands are funded: Senate Bill 1875 and the House of Representative’s 3992, also known as the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014.

Introduced in the House by Rep. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, the bill seeks to establish separate funding for the National Forest Service to respond to fire emergencies instead of routinely tapping money intended for other purposes, such as fire prevention.

“We know there are going to be fires, and while they vary from season to season, the Forest Service’s day-to-day operations need to be able to hum along and not be impacted if it’s a heavy or light fire year,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, one of more than 130 Democrat and Republican co-sponsors to the bill. “We think this is a good way to give them the tools they need to do that.”

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