‘Once-in-a-ca­reer fire’

Mix of veg­e­ta­tion and struc­tures in af­fected area com­pli­cates bat­tle

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Alissa Green­berg JEFF CHIU/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A mix of veg­e­ta­tion and struc­tures in the af­fected area com­pli­cates the des­per­ate bat­tle against a deadly Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire.

TSANTA ROSA, Calif. he fire had al­ready come down one side of the hill and been beaten back. Now, it was back­track­ing across the gully, low tongues of flame threat­en­ing a house with gray shut­ters at the end of the culde-sac.

Fire­fight­ers watched the smoke and as­sessed wind pat­terns, rak­ing dead leaves and branches away from the blaze in hopes of stanch­ing its charge once again.

The men, mem­bers of a fire com­pany from the nearby town of Wind­sor, es­ti­mated that they had been awake for more than 70 hours and hadn’t eaten for the first 16.

Like the other 21 wild­fires rav­aging North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the Tubbs Fire has burned largely out of con­trol for days, stretch­ing fire crews and chal­leng­ing tra­di­tional ef­forts to tame the flames. At least 29 peo­ple have been killed in what is now the dead­li­est wild­fire in­ci­dent in Cal­i­for­nia since 1933, with the fires col­lec­tively con­sum­ing an area larger than Chicago. More than 20,000 peo­ple have been evac­u­ated across the area.

On the ground, though, many fire­fight­ers said they hadn’t seen the news or heard the statis­tics. Most had been on the clock since the fires started Sun­day night, sneak­ing away for swigs of Ga­torade and 15-minute naps while steel­ing them­selves for a long haul fight­ing fires of enor­mous size and scope com­pli­cated by drought and de­vel­op­ment.

For them, the Tubbs Fire is a par­tic­u­larly per­sonal one. Wind­sor fire­fighter Mike Stor­netta’s par­ents lost their house of 30 years, the home where he grew up, as a firestorm swept through the Santa Rosa neigh­bor­hood of Foun­tain­grove on Sun­day night.

“Our first as­sign­ment was two blocks away,” he said dur­ing a pause in pa­trol. “While we were evac­u­at­ing an el­derly care fa­cil­ity home, we could see down into the glow of the neigh­bor­hood where I knew my par­ents lived.”

They weren’t home, but his grand­mother was hous­esit­ting and just barely es­caped. His par­ents lost ev­ery­thing ex­cept the clothes they were wear­ing.

Stor­netta and his crew were fight­ing back the flames at Wood­ley Place, a line of mod­est houses sur­rounded on three sides by wooded hills. The preva­lence of this kind of de­vel­op­ment — a low-den­sity com­bi­na­tion of homes and wild veg­e­ta­tion — has in­creased in Cal­i­for­nia in re­cent years, said Jonathan Cox, bat­tal­ion chief and spokesman for Cal Fire. Called “Wild­landUr­ban In­ter­face,” or “in­ter­mix” in fire­fighter par­lance, these en­vi­ron­ments are among the fac­tors that have made the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma and At­las Fire in Napa so dif­fi­cult to con­tain — along with five years of bru­tal drought, pow­er­ful winds and re­sources stretched thin from si­mul­ta­ne­ous fires around the state.

Although hard-hit Santa Rosa neigh­bor­hoods like Cof­fey Park are more tra­di­tion­ally ur­ban, in­ter­mix ar­eas are part of an up­ward trend through­out Cal­i­for­nia. “Ar­eas that would 20 years ago have noth­ing now are in­ter­face en­vi­ron­ments,” Cox said. “Take the sheer num­ber of square acres that are in­volved with in­ter­mix and wild­land-ur­ban spa­ces, com­bine that with the fre­quency and in­ten­sity of fires in­creas­ing — it’s a recipe for dis­as­ter.”

Fires move quickly through wild­land, and in the case of in­ter­mix, their con­tin­u­ous source of fuel is bro­ken up only by houses, mak­ing those struc­tures es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult to de­fend and those fires es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult to stop.

And even though fire codes re­quire houses in in­ter­mix ar­eas to have fire-re­sis­tant roofs, non­com­bustible sid­ing, and 100 feet of veg­e­ta­tion clear­ance around their struc­tures, that doesn’t change the ma­jor chal­lenge: Fire­fight­ing tac­tics for veg­e­ta­tion and struc­ture fires are fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent, and com­bin­ing them makes their ex­e­cu­tion more dif­fi­cult.

“It’s not just put a line on the ground and the fire is con­tained,” Cox said re­fer­ring to the tac­tic of cut­ting down a line of veg­e­ta­tion to limit the fire’s fuel. “You have es­sen­tially a jig­saw puz­zle of fire and homes and in­fra­struc­ture, all mixed to­gether, and then you add in topo­graph­i­cal fea­tures like slope and hills and trees.”

In early evening, a group from the Pe­taluma Fire De­part­ment joined a group of other firetrucks to re­fuel, re­fill wa­ter tanks and await next as­sign­ments in a stag­ing area on High­way 12, a pit­ted field of brown, dry grass fea­tur­ing a line of port-a-pot­ties and a few with­ered oak trees. Pe­taluma fire­fighter Trevor Hayes napped be­tween the hoses at the back of his truck, his hat over his eyes. Nearby, En­gine Capt. Greg McCol­lum of Santa Rosa Fire changed his boots and charged his phone in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a full night’s work.

Even af­ter 24 years, the sheer size and power of the Tubbs Fire has hum­bled him.

“This is a once-in-a-ca­reer fire,” McCol­lum said. “One of the other guys said it’s a once-intwo-ca­reers fire.”

He pulled back, cir­cum­spect. “Well, I’m no his­to­rian, but I know a damn big fire when I see one.”

Like Cox, he also saw a con­nec­tion be­tween the growth of ur­ban-ru­ral in­ter­face de­vel­op­ment and the fire’s scale.

“There was a fire that came over the hill [from Cal­is­toga, Calif.] sim­i­lar to the Tubbs Fire in 1967,” he said. “Now, the ur­ban in­ter­face is grow­ing — peo­ple moved out here to live in the coun­try. There’s a lot more ex­po­sure for struc­tures, and Mother Na­ture doesn’t care.”

The other Santa Rosa fire­fight­ers sat on a nearby stone wall un­der a murky pink sun­set, check­ing their phones and chew­ing to­bacco. A pass­ing firetruck honked its horn in greet­ing, and the men waved back and set­tled in to wait for the next call. They knew it was com­ing soon.

A Cal Fire fire­fighter works Thurs­day on hot spots on a hill in the Oak­mont area of Santa Rosa, Calif. A fore­cast for gusty winds and dry air threat­ened to fan the fires, which are fast be­com­ing the dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory af­ter de­stroy­ing thou­sands of homes and busi­nesses.

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