Northern Calif. Suffered Devastating Fires in 2014

Jan. 4, 2015
Three major wildfires swept through areasfrom Siskiyou County to the Intermountain area of Northern California.

SHASTA COUNTY, California - The year 2014 will easily be remembered as a year of particularly devastating blazes in the North State, an area already known for its ruthless fire seasons.

The area was slammed with one destructive fire after another throughout the summer, with three juggernauts in as many months, from Siskiyou County to the Intermountain area.

First, the Bully Fire charred 12,662 acres west of Redding in July, destroyed about 20 structures and killed a man. Not long after, the Eiler Fire burned about 32,000 acres in Hat Creek in August, also taking out several homes, a business and a dozen outbuildings. Then, an alleged arson destroyed far more structures than the other two combined, in only a fraction of the acres. The 479-acre Boles Fire leveled more than 140 Weed homes in September and several community fixtures, including a community center and church.

Despite all the destruction, community leaders say their small towns are determined to rebuild and even make some upgrades now that they have to start over.

“It was a terrible, horrible thing, but we have an opportunity to make it better,” said Weed Mayor Bob Hall.

Boles Fire: Sept. 15

The Angel Valley homes the Boles Fire destroyed haven’t re-emerged yet, but city groups and government agencies have come forward to help them eventually get there.

Hall said he expects most of the homeowners to rebuild in the spring, but one couple — Wendell and Cheryl Brown — just laid their new foundation on Wednesday.

“For us, things seem to be moving along really well,” Cheryl Brown said.

The couple have been living in a home nearby since the September fire, but both are eager to get back to the plot they’ve called home for almost 50 years.

“We keep wanting to go back home after being there for so long; it’s been kind of devastating, being displaced,” Cheryl Brown said.

The Browns’ current living situation reflects how local businesses and groups have stepped up to take care of fire victims. Cheryl Brown said homes in foreclosure were temporarily taken off the market so Boles Fire victims could live in them.

“They took it off the market to help,” she said.

Cal Recycle cleared the ruins for free in October, and the city itself streamlined the permitting process so victims can rebuild as easily as possible, Hall said.

“We’ve had a lot of assistance,” Hall said. “I can’t put it into words.”

Support for fire victims stretched far and wide, literally across the country, though the bulk of it came from Siskiyou County residents and businesses. Local celebrities — musician Merle Haggard and writer Tom Stienstra — both held benefits for fire victims that brought in thousands of dollars in donations.

But the fire also brought to light deep-seated social and economic issues in Weed, Hall said, since some victims didn’t have the skills to get a job, making their recovery even harder.

Because of that, Hall said the city is trying to start a job-skills program to foster long-term success in town.

“We actually realized that we have a lot of unemployable people,” Hall said. “They are our people, and we want them to know we care and we want them to join us and come up to speed.”

For those who do work in Weed, the fire still found a way to disrupt life. The city’s biggest employer — Roseburg Forest Products — sent a few dozen employees to its sister operation in Oregon after the fire damaged the mill. It’s since reopened. All told, the fire affected 135 Roseburg employees’ jobs.

Wendy Zanotelli, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Northern California, said her organization distributed $121,000 in donations to those Roseburg employees, and still had $200,000 or so left to continue helping fire victims.

The Roseburg donations came from fellow Roseburg employees and others, and matched 100 percent by the company, Zanotelli said.

Though far more had their jobs impacted in some way, 17 employees lost their homes as well in the fire, and 15 of them needed help recovering, Zanotelli said. “I am so touched by the outpouring of support from our community and the Roseburg employees throughout the company that stepped up to help our employees in their time of need,” Jeff Scholberg, plant manager at Roseburg in Weed, said in a news release.

The city also got a new water tank after one was destroyed in the fire, and — thanks to a state grant — it’s twice the size of the old one, holding 400,000 gallons to the former’s 200,000.

“The old cliché is to make lemonade out of lemons,” Hall said.

Eiler Fire: July 31

The small community of Hat Creek was hit hard in early August after the Eiler Fire gathered strength burning in the Thousand Lakes Wilderness area of the Lassen National Forest before rolling out of the woods and into the small eastern Shasta County town.

Ignited on July 31, the blaze went on to burn more than 50 square miles and also threaten the towns of Burney, Cassel and Johnson Park. But Hat Creek took the brunt of its force, where eight homes, two commercial buildings and eight other structures burned.

The Forest Service’s early response to the fire was hampered by limited resources due to other wildland fires burning on federal lands nearby, a Record Searchlight investigation revealed. A small crew of eight smoke jumpers was first dispatched to the fire, and multiple requests for air support and water drops within the first 24 hours were never fulfilled.

“I realize there were two other fires burning, but those weren’t really threatening structures like the Eiler Fire was,” said Busy Ryman, owner of Rancheria RV Park on Highway 89. “I just think it was totally mismanaged, and I’ve lived in National Forest lands for more than 50 years. I do respect the Forest Service, but this particular instance was totally wrong.”

While some residents are bitter about the response, few wasted time before salvaging the wood they could and starting down the road to rebuild what was lost. That, in part, is because seedlings needed to be ordered before year’s end to be ready for planting by spring 2016, said Jeff Webster, a registered forester from Redding working with many property owners in the area.

“If you don’t get those seedlings ordered you have to wait a full year, and that means brush and grass get a hold, and in turn that means more herbicide applications (after replanting),” Webster said. “It’s not an easy process, but it’s driven by biology.”

Ryman said she is still examining options but hopes to start construction on a modular home or possibly move into an RV at the park she manages this spring. Hat Creek rancher and county supervisor Pam Giacomini did not lose any structures at the ranch she runs with her husband, Henry, but the couple have been busy reconstructing fencing on lands they lease to feed cattle.

For the land it manages, Lassen National Forest fast-tracked necessary studies for salvage work and reforestation on nearly 15,000 acres of public lands burned in the fire. The agency is accepting written comments on that proposal until Friday, Jan. 9.

At least one rare tree species stands to benefit from the devastating fire, according to the Forest Service report. The Baker cypress — a species found in only 11 scattered locations, including an area burned by the Eiler Fire — relies on high-intensity fire to open cones on mature trees and prepare a seedbed for regeneration.

Lassen National Forest officials familiar with those projects were unavailable for comment on Friday, said spokeswoman Esther Miranda-Cole.

Bully Fire: July 11

The Bully Fire, the first major blaze to roar through Shasta County in 2014, left more than 12,000 acres burned and one man dead. The man charged with setting the fire remains at large.

The Bully Fire started on July 11 when investigators say Freddie Alexander Smoke III was delivering a truck of supplies to an illegal marijuana grow in western Shasta County. Exhaust from the truck sparked dry grass near Roaring Creek and Sargent roads.

Smoke tried to flee the area but was arrested on arson and marijuana-related charges. He was freed shortly after when he posted $10,000 bail through Aladdin Bail Bond.

However, the fire led to the death of Jesus Arellano Garcia, 35, of Michoacán, Mexico. Garcia succumbed to asphyxia due to smoke inhalation and thermal injury from the fire. It took three months to identify the man, whose body was burned so badly that his fingerprints could not be used.

The Shasta County District Attorney’s Office filed involuntary manslaughter charges against Smoke in Garcia’s death. However, the 27-year-old Sacramento man did not show up at an arraignment on the charge in August, and remains on the loose with a $500,000 bench warrant out for his arrest.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimates cleanup after the fire, which destroyed 20 structures and injured 21 people, will cost $20 million.


©2015 the Redding Record Searchlight (Redding, Calif.)

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