Cal Fire Battalion Chief: 'This was my Nightmare Fire'

Aug. 27--Although Cal Fire Battalion Chief Troy Cheek has been a firefighter for 25+ years, 13 of those in the Mountain Area, he has never seen a fire in Oakhurst as intense as the Aug. 18 Junction Fire that roared through and around the town.

"This was my nightmare fire that I have fought in my mind many nights," Cheek told the nearly 100 people that attended Supervisor Tom Wheeler's Aug. 21 Town Hall meeting at Bass Lake.

Serving as the Initial Attack Incident Commander, Cheek quickly assessed the situation and made the call for mutual aid. Within a half hour, 50 fire engines from 60 departments across the state were heading for Oakhurst -- all arriving within 18 hours of the initial call.

In addition to the Central Valley, engines and crews came as far as Los Angeles City and County, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Atascadero, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, San Francisco, Oakland, Hayward, Alameda, Fremont, Folsom, Sacramento, Davis, Stockton, Tracy, Manteca, and Modesto.

Cheek had the daunting task of coordinating the 50 engines, 650 firefighters, 10 water tenders, 10 bulldozers, and air support to combat the fast moving fire. Much like a general on the battle field, Cheek had to make quick decisions based on information he was receiving from Operations Section Chief Steve Leonard, and seven division supervisors on the front lines, to contain the fire as quickly as possible. Not a job for a timid person.

"Chief Leonard responded as a second chief officer and assumed incident operations," Cheek said. "He was a tremendous help and instrumental in extinguishing this fire."

Embers thrown quarter mile

About an hour into the fire, Cheek said air attack personnel felt they had the fire stopped and were in pretty good shape -- that's when a couple large bull pine trees "started torching off like roman candles, throwing embers and starting spot fires a quarter mile ahead of the fire."

Cheek said at that time the fire was moving at a dangerous rate of speed -- moving northeast, parallel with Highway 41, burning close to homes at the top of Stage Coach Road (425A), then past Hodges Hill.

"We kept telling the sheriff's department we need to evacuate this area ... then this area ... then another," Cheek said.

The fire had travelled a little over a mile behind businesses on the west side of Highway 41, when it jumped the highway near Car Quest Auto Parts north of town.

"When it jumped 41, it was bad," Cheeks said. "When it got into the Fresno River/Lewis Creek drainage and jumped the river, we ordered resources for a 10,000 acre fire. I was afraid it was going to move up the river drainage into the Yosemite Forks subdivision, east to Chepo Saddle, and south to the upper end of John West Road."

That changed with the last drop from the DC10.

"The last DC10 drop made just before nightfall was a big turning point in getting control of this fire," Cheek said. "After that drop we were able to get dozers in there and stop the fire. I can't say enough good things about the men and women who were out on the fire line all night to help get this fire under control. All the agencies that helped stop that fire were amazing."

Success came with some tragedy

Cheek said getting the fire out was a success, but it came with some tragedy.

"This is my area ... I work and live in this area," Cheek said. "We lost five homes and that's something I'll always remember -- we lost five homes we were supposed to protect and that bothers me. When the day comes that a fire in my area that I'm responsible for, burns down a house, and it doesn't bother me -- that's the day I will turn in my gear."

Cheek said although firefighters train year-round in preparation for wildland fires, "mother nature humbles us from time-to-time." He added that due to the third year of drought, coupled with a lot of fuel from down and dead trees from the big winter storm of 2011, the area was at high risk for a bad fire.

"I remember over the years, having dinner with my wife at El Cid ... and looking out the window at Taylor Mountain thinking that is exactly where we don't want a fire," Cheek said.

Cal Fire Division Chief Don Stein said the Cal Fire mission is to suppress 90% of all fires at 10-acres or less.

"In our effort to save homes and lives, our philosophy is to hit these fires with everything we have," Stein said.

Stein said the community of Oakhurst sits in a geographic bowl which makes it about the worst location to have a fire. Add to that a little wind and a drought, and you have the potential for a dangerous fire.

"We were lucky that some fires in Northern California were wrapping up, so that more resources were available to us for this fire," Stein said. "We had a line around the fire by 7 a.m. the next morning."

No injuries to the public were reported and there were only three minor injuries to firefighters.

Stein said they had plenty of water to fight the blaze.

"Hillview Water Company did a great job," Stein said. "They were advised of the situation early on, and provided more than three quarters of a million gallons of water. Their storage tanks never fell below 70% capacity."

Cheek said fire officials are doing everything they can to determine how the fire started, and who may be responsible.

"We have the same investigators who did all the work to convict (Kenneth) Jackson and (Alice) Waterman for last year's Coarsegold arson fires, working this incident,' Stein said.

The cost to suppress the Junction Fire, which burned 612 acres, was $4.6 million.

Cheek reminds Mountain Area residents it's never too late to clean-up around their property to create a defensible space from a vegetation fire.

"People need to understand that in addition to having a defensible clearance around their home, they need to make their house fire-ready," Cheek explained. "When these bull pines and live oaks torch-off, embers can easily travel a half mile, go through an open window, or start leaves on the roof or in rain gutters on fire."

Cal Fire reminds people not to mow lawns or weed eat after 10 a.m..

"There is still a minimum of two months left in this year's fire season," Cheek said.

County Emergency Warning System

Citizens of Madera County are encouraged to sign-up for emergency warnings through Madera County's Emergency Warning system that sends alerts via home phones, cellular phones, work phones, emails, text messages or fax machines when there is a threat to the safety of area residents.

All information provided to sign-up is confidential. Area residents can register for the service online at mcalert.org. For those who do not have access to a computer, call (559) 675-7770 to register.

The system alerted an estimated 13,000 Mountain Area contacts of the danger of the Junction Fire.

Copyright 2014 - Sierra Star (Oakhurst, Calif.)

Loading