A Relentless Summer Of Fire

With the flicker of flame, a new wildland fire season began. This year, the initial calls for aid were received from the state of Arizona and not only drew quick resource response but prompted a quick realization that 1996 was going to be a long, hot year on the fire lines in the West.

With what has become a normal ending to spring, firefighters in several states were chasing early-season wildfires in light fuels but the activity and intensity were noticeably higher following the curing of grass and brush left prime after the severe winter of 1995 and a relatively mild summer burn that followed. In 1996, nature was ready to burn.

Photo by Keith D. Cullom/IFPA
Low humidity and gusty winds caused the Marple fire to spread rapidly.

Photo by Keith D. Cullom/IFPA
On the second day of the Castaic fire, 2,200 firefighters were operating.

By late June, structures were being consumed along with grass and brush on the eastern Sierra as major fires burned in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Thousands of acres fell to flames through the early months of the season with no letup in the need for firefighting resources. By August, firefighters had given up an extremely high number of acres but still were in the game. Before the month was half over, firefighters would be challenged on many fronts as major blazes burned near Reno, NV; complex fires in Utah blackened over 160,000 acres; and houses were being lost in the 108,000-acre Warm Springs Fire in Oregon as well as in Mariposa County, CA.

By mid-August, more than 10,000 firefighters in seven western states were doing battle to try and keep up with 700 new starts reported by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID. Some 3.99 million acres of watershed had already been converted to ash, as compared to the 1.43 million acres burned in all of 1995. Firefighters from Alaska to Puerto Rico were working the front lines in the West. With scores of major incidents now in progress, California fire activity changed from primarily preparation to attack.

In only a few days during mid-August, state and local agencies went from moderate incident levels to extreme. On Aug. 15, southern California firefighting resources were in a low draw-down level with most companies in district and only overhead personnel demands being ordered from local agencies for needs on fires in progress in northern and central California: 4,000 acres in Sequoia National Park, 24,000 acres in Mendocino National Forest, the 59,000-acre Ackerson Complex near Yosemite National Park and 70,000 acres in Lake County.

With burning conditions ideal on Aug. 15, firefighters in southern California were anxious as the alarm was sounded for a brushfire in the mid-state county of San Luis Obisbo County. At 1 P.M., a vehicle-caused fire in the Santa Margarita area of San Luis Obisbo would signal the beginning of weeks of intense firefighting efforts in southern California.

In San Luis Obisbo County, wildland areas outside of urban areas are the responsibility of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which had depleted its in-county resources due to state-responsibility fires in northern areas of the state. The 58 Fire burning off Highway 58 in the southern part of the county would require immediate mutual aid assistance and could not be stopped until more than 2,000 firefighters would report to the scene. For seven days, a small army of firefighters from all parts of California worked to stop the fire at 106,600 acres, saving all but 12 homes.

Photo by Keith D. Cullom/IFPA
The fire burned 20,000 acres and was the largest in Los Angeles County since 1993.

In contrast to the week before, available firefighting resources statewide were now becoming extremely thin as new fires sought appropriate response levels. On Aug. 24, an intentionally set fire in the Azusa area of Los Angeles County prompted the redirection of resources as a blaze in 1,500 acres of heavy brush developed into a major fire. With another large commitment of resources, firefighters worked for four days to contain the fire but not before new problems developed.

With daytime temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit and low fuel moisture, the report of fire was received one more time at the Los Angeles County Fire Department Command and Control Center at the headquarters complex. It was 12:30 P.M. on Monday, Aug. 26, when the Marple Fire in the Castaic area, 40 miles north of downtown, was intentionally set at the side of Interstate 5 (the Golden State Freeway). With resources depleted, Engine 149 was informed that no aircraft support would be assigned on the incident unless structures were threatened. As firefighters approached the scene with 50 acres running from the point of origin, a second alarm was requested, along with strike teams. With structure loss potential, resource priorities were reassigned and aircraft was ordered and being diverted but not immediately available.

Within an hour, strike teams from the Los Angeles County, Los Angeles City and Ventura County fire departments and the U.S. Forest Service were on scene as the fire spotted ahead of the dancing flames as they raced through unbroken beds of heavy fuel unburned in 30 years. With low humidity and localized gusty winds, flames raged on both sides of the eight-lane interstate that is the West Coast's primary north-south artery. About 3,500 acres were involved by the 5 P.M. commuter rush hour, creating a traffic nightmare with a backup of more than 10 miles. Thirty miles of the freeway were shut down on several occasions during the first three days of the fire.

By evening, hundreds of firefighters were trying to identify natural barriers or roadways across the 12.5 square miles of mostly inaccessible terrain as they attempted to establish any defensible line but time after time the dry, heavy fuelbed fed the flames and spots jumped the lines to take another ridge or canyon.

Structural protection was assigned at homes and mobile home parks that sparsely dot the area bordering the 750,000-acre Angeles National Forest as well as the Los Angeles City Department of Water & Power's Castaic Power Plant at the north end of Castaic Lake. As night fell, the fire refused to lay down as it charged across 10,000 acres.

As daylight returned on Tuesday morning, an army of firefighters with a huge array of suppression resources was on scene or enroute. Some 2,200 firefighters, 152 engines, 27 bulldozers, 11 air tankers, 14 helicopters and handcrews, including the U.S. Forest Service "Sierra Hotshots," who would log in the Marple Fire as their 23rd major wildland incident that they had worked since June at many spots across the western states.

As big a deployment as this was, the large number of serious fires throughout the states made competition for resource deployment a priority-driven exercise that left some fires with no assigned response. The Los Angeles County incident had the potential to reach more than 75,000 acres and populated urban areas if it were not corralled soon.

Throughout Tuesday, the fire had its way as it continued to march, now 15,000 acres, with seven homes and dozens of vehicles lost to the advance. On the line, a bulldozer operator was rescued by a Los Angeles County helicopter as his ridgetop position was overrun. Elsewhere, four county fire crew carriers were destroyed by fire as flames burned over their position while the handcrews worked on the line, away from the vehicles. The next day, six crew carriers were rescued from flames as drivers were dropped by helicopter and then drove the trucks to safety. Wednesday was a repeat of the two previous days and nights as the fire now neared 20,000 acres in what now was the largest fire to burn in the county sine the 1993 Malibu conflagration.

Photo by Keith D. Cullom/IFPA
Two Canadair Super Scooper air tankers were called in early because of the fires.

Photo by Keith D. Cullom/IFPA
The Super Scoopers have been contracted for October and November for five years.

Thursday would be the turning point, as the rate of spread slowed to only 1,500 acres and firefighters were successful in securing the fire line other than its advance deep into the uninhabited and inaccessible forest area. With the fire now covering 33 square miles, firefighters held their lines and the uncontrolled head of the fire would be an air-show deep in the wilds of the Angeles National Forest.

The work to hold the perimeter would require hundreds of firefighters remaining through the Labor Day holiday but their control of the fire was now ensured. During the week-long battle, 52 firefighters suffered minor injuries and more than $2 million was spent on suppression.

With the extreme potential from continued serious fire activity, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman received approval from the county Board of Supervisors to request from the Province of Quebec an early delivery of two Canadair CL215Y Super Scooper air tankers that had previously been contracted to arrive on Oct. 1. Los Angeles County had tested the firefighting aircraft over the past two fire seasons and had leased the planes for the next five seasons for October and November, based on anticipation of the annual arrival of the wind-driven fire conditions known as Santa Ana Winds. With the county leasing the two tankers, it became the only agency in the United States using the aircraft which were designed for firefighting.

Keith D. Cullom, a Firehouse® correspondent, is a California-based freelance writer and photographer. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Photographers (IFPA).