Fire Season Arrives in Southern Humboldt

The eruption of two wildfires in Southern Humboldt last week — one west of Weott and the other in the Benbow area — made it clear that the 2016 fire season has arrived.
Granted, the kick-off is nowhere near as dramatic as a year ago, when a lightning storm at the end of July triggered more than 70 separate blazes in the Blocksburg area. The multiple ignitions, dubbed the Humboldt Complex, soon merged into three main fires that ended up torching close to 5,000 acres.
“The lightning series was the worst [wildfire] in the last six years. We dealt with it until mid-September,” recalled Marty Hobbs, who took over as Cal Fire’s Garberville Battalion Chief half-a-dozen years ago. He’s now the Division Chief at Cal Fire’s Eel River Conservation Camp near Redway.
Roughly two weeks later another conflagration — the Horse Fire — broke out in the King Range some six miles northeast of Shelter Cove. Nearly 150 acres got charred.
“We had our hands full last summer,” Hobbs summed up.
This time around it’s more distant fires that require attention — in particular the Soberanes Fire, which as of Saturday had burned more than 55,000 acres in the rugged Big Sur region of Monterey County.
To combat the blaze, which has so far destroyed 57 homes, the unified command of Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service has mobilized what amounts to a small army. More than 5,000 firefighting personnel and support staff are on hand along with an array of equipment, including 426 fire engines, 61 bulldozers, 55 water tenders, 18 helicopters and six air tankers.
All those people and all that stuff needs to come from somewhere, so it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that the effort down south has had an impact locally.
 “There’s been about a 50 percent drawdown of resources in terms of personnel and equipment” in Cal Fire’s Humboldt-Del Norte Unit, Hobbs said.
“Five engines, two dozers and at least three strike teams have been sent out of county,” chimed in Isaac Lake, Cal Fire’s Garberville Battalion Chief.
As a result, when two blazes broke out within the space of an hour last Tuesday — the Panther Gap Fire between Weott and Honeydew, and the Johnson Fire northeast of Orick in Northern Humboldt — Cal Fire had to strain a bit to respond.
Of course, when it comes to fighting fires the agency isn’t on its own. On the Johnson Fire, which was corralled at 22 acres, assistance was provided by Six Rivers National Forest. And local volunteer fire departments chipped in on Panther Gap, which burned eight acres before being contained.
A multi-pronged response that involved air attack as well as an engine sent by the Arcata Fire District was also mounted when a vegetation fire broke out in the vicinity of the Benbow KOA campground last Friday. Five acres were charred along with a vehicle and a house.
One way Cal Fire guards against being caught unprepared is through what are known as “Fire Assistance Agreements.” These allow local emergency responders, such as volunteer fire departments, to receive financial reimbursement in return for making available their own resources — in other words, engines, water tenders and manpower.
This can translate into something of a bonanza. While Robert Richardson, chief of the Miranda Volunteer Fire Department, declined to be specific, he made it clear that his department didn’t do too badly for the effort it put in battling the Humboldt Complex last year.
“On the Humboldt Complex, we did 56 out of 60 days on the road. Cal Fire had us for 56 of 60 days,” Richardson said, adding that under the assistance agreement pay is made on an hourly basis.
It’s no coincidence that a few months later Richardson’s department purchased two Type 3 engines. Type 3 engines are suitable for battling wildfires.
While the Miranda department is part of the Miranda Community Services District and receives an annual budget, Richardson said the purchase was made possible thanks to the assistance agreement with Cal Fire.
“We wouldn’t have been able to buy the engines we did without the agreement,” Richardson commented.
While the money is nice, there are other advantages to being on the same team as Cal Fire.
“It’s a mutual aid kind of thing,” Richardson explained. “If there’s a structure fire in Miranda, technically we’re responsible. But Cal Fire is there to provide assistance. If there’s a vegetation fire in Miranda, the amount of support Cal Fire can give [in the form of] tankers, dozers and hand crews is huge.”
Finally, the agreement helps ensure, as Richardson put it, that “people [and equipment] are where they need to be during the fire season.”
An example of that is the duty Richardson’s department has been pulling since July 25 — manning, in Cal Fire’s absence, the agency’s fire station in Whitethorn, known simply as “Thorn.”
“We’re here because Cal Fire sent a strike team to the south. We could be here one more day or the rest of the summer” depending on Cal Fire’s needs, Richardson explained.
The two Type 3 engines have come in handy because they have made it possible for Richardson to cover Thorn as well as his department’s own station. “My fire captain and one of the Type 3 engines is in Miranda. The other one is in Whitethorn.”
The Miranda department isn’t the only one “backfilling” a Cal Fire station, as the duty is called. The Alderpoint Volunteer Fire Department is doing the same thing at Cal Fire’s Alderpoint station.
Like Richardson, Sterling Kercher, Alderpoint’s chief, said the assistance agreement with Cal Fire provides a vital source of revenue.
While his department does many of the traditional things volunteer fire departments do to raise funds — like flipping burgers, baking cookies and having a booth at community events (the event in this case being the Redwood Run) — it doesn’t have a parcel tax to rely on as some other outfits do.
Which means that the assistance agreement with Cal Fire isn’t merely important. It’s necessary.
“If not for [the agreement] we probably wouldn’t be a department. It’s our biggest source of revenue,” Kercher said.
Lake, the Garberville chief, emphasized that from Cal Fire’s point of view the expense is worth it. Thanks to the service being performed by the Alderpoint and Miranda volunteers, the agency knows that “there are engines on standby ready to respond to anything that comes up in those areas.”
As for the current state of the fire danger, Hobbs said that despite some late spring rains, “fuel moistures are down to the point where we’re starting to get fires.” Noting that a statewide burn ban is in effect, he urged people to be cautious. A vehicle towing a trailer and dragging a chain on the roadway is one thing that he said should definitely be avoided.
“Sparks [from the chain] can create several fires alongside a roadway. In a 10-mile stretch, you could have 15 fires,” Hobbs said.
He also had a request: That people out in rural areas have visible addressing at the head of their driveways. “Saying you’re at [a certain address] when the address is not posted” creates confusion, Hobbs said. “Having a driveway marked helps us find it.”
Hobbs allowed that the addressing out in rural areas has gotten a bit better over time. Nonetheless, he said it was a problem on last week’s Panther Gap fire. “We’d drive up one road and it would be a dead end. We’d drive up a second road and realize, ‘No, this isn’t it either.’”
There were occasions last week when Hobbs said it took three tries before the right road was found. “So you’ve just wasted all that time, time that wouldn’t have been wasted if there had been proper addressing.”