As part of Wildfire Awareness Week, California State Parks would like to recognize the dedicated employees who prepare for, respond to, and restore after wildfires. We are proud to work alongside first responders, dispatch and maintenance who swiftly stepped up during and after the Butte and Valley Fires of 2015 to help protect the public along with the natural and cultural resources threatened by fire. In addition, we are proud to showcase the partnership we have with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to protect old-growth redwoods. Below you will find recounts of the efforts made by department members during these two disastrous wildfires along with a focus on the innovative ways CAL FIRE and California State Parks combat wildfire and protect the world’s largest trees during this historic drought.
The Valley fire burned over 76,076 acres and burned into three counties: Lake, Napa, and Sonoma. The fire caused four fatalities. A total of 1,955 structures destroyed including; 1,281 homes, 27 mulit-family structures, 66 commercial properties, and 581 other minor structures.
Among the initial first responders to the scene of the fire were Clear Lake Sector rangers Jennifer Ayala and Darrin Conner (K9) and Superintendent Bill Salata. The trio worked with other law enforcement officers to begin immediate evacuations in the rural area affected by the fast moving fire. Among the tasks Ayala, Conner and Salta took on where notifying residents, using a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach remote homes, directing and escorting heavy traffic on rural roads, helping livestock escape enclosures and assisting with an injury vehicle accident in the initial hours of the fire.
As the fire burned over several days, California State Parks contributed the aid of more than 28 law enforcement officers to the incident. These included rangers Scott Liske, Justin Rhoads, Mark Hofer, Paul Borg, Todd Jones, Cameron Morrison, Derek Davis, John Verhoeven, Sandy Jones, Crystal Battles, and Dan Kenney (K9) and supervising rangers Neill Fogarty, Evan Walter, John DeLuca and Robert Picket. Additionally, sector superintendents Lorrie Martin, Aaron Wright, Ryen Goering, and Vince Anibale along with Northern Buttes Superintendent Eddie Guaracha and Bay Area Superintendent Danita Rodriguez assisted. Headquarters staff assisting included superintendents Jason DeWall, Scott Bayne and John Stevens from Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Division and Northern Division Chief Dana Jones.
The Butte Fire broke out near the Mokelumne River on September 8 and grew to approximately 14,500 acres overnight. The following day, the Central Valley District sprang into action in response to the Butte Fire which initially threatened Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park.
District Superintendent Jess Cooper assembled Sector Superintendent Greg Martin, Supervising Ranger Jackie Olavarria, Maintenance Chief III Greg Yanchus, Park Maintenance Chief I Alec Varner, District Services Manager Liz Steller, Administrative Chief Sandy von Herrmann, Cultural Resource Specialist Linda Dick-Bissonnette and Regional Interpretive Specialist Amber Cantisano and immediately created a 24-hour incident command team to monitor the fire and facilitate communications between CAL FIRE’s Incident Command, the district and the field. The team created an operations plan and mobilized staff to protect natural and cultural resources and park facilities.
On September 10, while still planning for the Butte Fire Operations Plan at Indian Grinding Rock, the fire started spreading quickly in the back canyons and was moving towards Calaveras Big Trees State Park, located east of the town of Arnold. Big Trees was closed to the public and district staff created an operations plan for this park.
The fire-trained Sierra District resource crew came to assist Central Valley District staff with their expertise and equipment. Together, they cleared debris from around the base of the 3,000 year old giant sequoias and from around historic buildings. Rangers, heavy equipment operators and employees throughout the district took on 24-hour shifts, purchased necessary supplies and equipment, and opened communication lines that made this potential disaster into a positive team building experience.
Thank you to all the department staff who helped in this time of emergency:
David Wood III
David Ybarra III
Jack SperryWayne Torres
Justin La Marsh
Robert J Silva
Sandy Von Herman
Additionally, California State Parks is proud to work together with the CAL FIRE in protecting the state’s citizens and visitors along with its natural and cultural resources.
World’s Largest Trees
As California’s drought continues to leave normally wet parts of the state parched, old-growth redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are increasingly vulnerable to both natural and human caused wildfires. Last year, California State Parks and CAL FIRE resorted to climbing trees to save some of the California’s greatest resources.
Extinguishing fires in these forests is extremely difficult due to heavy fuels and difficult terrain. This situation is worsened when the fire climbs into the forest canopy. Firefighters can use hoses to reach 30 or 40 feet off of the ground, but this is often little help in trees that can be over 300 feet tall. There is also an urgency to extinguish the fire quickly, before it spreads embers to neighboring trees and so that firefighters are free to respond to other emergencies.
The easiest way to extinguish a fire in the canopy is to cut down the tree so firefighters can reach the fire. But many of the recently burning trees have been over 10 feet in diameter and over 1,000 years old.
California State Parks and CAL FIRE have been working together to find more creative solutions to put out the fires while saving these giants that are the very reason these parks were created. Each situation is different and has to be assessed for the safest, most effective way to proceed. Fires low in the canopy can often be extinguished with a hose fitted with the appropriate nozzle. If a helicopter is available it can drop water from above, but this is expensive and does not always get to fires that are under the bark or inside cavities. Firefighters can sometimes get a rope over a branch, and then haul a sprinkler into the canopy to put out the fire. If that doesn’t work, then a firefighter may be able to climb the tree or a neighboring tree to get at the problem.
Safety is always the primary concern. Crews must constantly assess the risks involved with any action. There is risk in working under a burning tree whether you are fighting a fire on the ground, cutting a tree down or climbing a tree. There is also a risk in allowing the tree to burn. A burning tree may drop embers or branches unexpectedly, or the whole tree may fall down. The last resort is to cut the tree down before the fire spreads to other trees or the tree damages other resources by falling in an unpredictable direction.
These are just a few examples of how California State Parks and partners prepare for, respond to, and restore after wildfires. Thousands of wildfires strike California every year; developing faster, innovative ways to combat and limit their damage is imperative. Learn what you can do to prevent wildfires and stay safe during one at ReadyForWildfire.org.