Richard Lefever is with Goldendale’s Bishop Services and it K4 Kitchen Unit supporting fire suppression efforts in California, during a summer fire season of prodigious proportions. He sends this report of a truly amazing experience with the fire.
Bishop Services K4 Kitchen Unit recently experienced one of the most dreaded and feared events in wildland firefighting. Shifting winds during the evening sent the million-acre “August Fire” in northern California racing toward our fire-fighting base camp.
The North Zone Base camp was located deep in a secluded canyon between Madd River and Ruth Lake, California. By this point, the erratic fire behavior, narrow mountain roads with numerous switch backs, and falling trees had eliminated any chance of a safe evacuation out of the canyon. Fortunately, fire managers had anticipated such an event was possible and had burned a large adjacent field earlier in the day to create a safe zone. Analyst from Fire Behavior had estimated the deadly fire now racing toward camp was incinerating an acre of forest land every five seconds only hours earlier. Any attempt to outrun a fire of this magnitude would be both foolish and deadly. Complicating an already serious situation, burning fire debris carried by the swift moving wind was igniting new fires as far as seven miles ahead of the main fire.
John Hatton, a BSI Line Cook originally from Goldendale now living in New York, described the event: “Something kind of surreal happened. The fire couldn’t be contained, so we had no choice but to let the fire surround our camp as we planned for the worse. We sat in a burned field waiting for it to pass, then we headed back to our sleeping trailers thinking it was safe to sleep, and then it burst into flames again and came right up to where we slept on literally every side of us, encircling us by rapidly growing fires in every direction. The smoke was so thick you could barely see or breathe, with hot embers shooting out of the sky. Ash and torched debris was flying everywhere and falling all around us. The safest place to wait this thing out was in the middle of this field that had been pre-burned the previous day. We sat in chairs and watched the mountains go up in flames all round us. Over 73 hours of insanity, it was an intense experience to say the least. I have an all new-found respect for firefighters who deal with these situations on a regular basis. Mother Nature is no joke.”
Even with fire trails pushed in around our equipment, the intensity of the fire blistered paint on the crew bunk trailer parked near the edge of camp, in the same trailer where 26 BSI team members were sleeping prior to the evacuation. Everyone remained calm throughout the evacuation process, and all staff were immediately accounted for in the safe zone.
Two days were required to safely evaluate our propane lines, electrical systems, and diesel lines before our kitchen equipment could come back on line. As we waited for those safety checks to be completed, our catering staff dined on military style MREs (meals ready to eat) along with several hundred other fire personnel now confined in our remote safe haven.
The August Fire, started by a series of lightning strikes on Aug. 17, in only six weeks mushroomed into California’s largest recorded fire, burning over one million acres. It is twice the size of California’s previous largest fire. The fire encompassed seven counties and is larger than the State of Rhode Island. The distance between the north and the south edges, as a crow flies, is slightly over 100 miles. Fire Crews in the North Zone, where our burned over camp is located, are trying desperately to maintain an approximate 170 miles of fire line situated in some of the most inaccessible mountain terrain in California. California’s 2020 wildfires all combined have blackened more than 4 million acres.
“The 4-million-acre mark is an unfathomable figure” said Scott McLhean, a spokesman for Cal Fire. That figure represents 4 percent of California’s 100 million acres of forest land. As of Oct. 2, 16,500 firefighters were battling 23 major fires in California.
With over a month and half left of the 2020 fire season, it appears only rain or early snow will stop this inferno. Let’s hope for a wet fall.
In Bishop Company’s 32 years supporting wildfires, to my knowledge this is only the third time fire has engulfed a fire camp. The first encounter was during the legendary Yellowstone Firestorm in 1988.