Last week: The fire threatens the top of town, but Boulder Creek crews are able to hold it at bay, even while their own houses burn.
This week: The final installment. (As of Saturday, September 19th, the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire is 97% contained, with full containment expected within 1-2 days.)
Chief Bingham picks up the final leg of the story:
“There are still hot spots within the Boulder Creek Fire Protection District, and they still have a lot of fuel around them. Most areas where the fire burned in that first week, it burned three times: it first burned on the ground; then it would launch a vertical ignition halfway or three-quarters of the way up a tree, and finally, it would run across the crowns of the trees, and bald the tops of 160-foot redwood trees. For the most part, our district didn’t get a lot of air support during this period, due to the winds, low visibility, and lack of resources. Some fires, you have a string of ten helicopters coming in with water drops; here, this 86,000-acre fire has eight helicopters total. The state just didn’t have the resources. I don’t blame CalFire folks—they can’t use what they don’t have. None of the fixed-wing planes that drop fire suppressant were available. We knew that we had everything that could be given to us, but we had a tall order. We were resource-light, for certain.
“About 3-4 days in, Boulder Creek joined in unified command with CalFire when the incident management team took over the fire. They collaborated with local fire districts in suppression efforts to transition from active firefighting to mop-up, which is where you see more containment; that means most of the fire is put out, but there are still a lot of hazards around still impacting repopulation—downed trees and wires, infrastructure that’s been damaged. Plus, we have to work through all of that debris to continue to put out those hot spots that are deep in our mountains. Most of them don’t have roads leading in, which means you either need to use air support, or hike in. We don’t have air support, so we hike in. There are a lot of boots on the ground out there.
“Bottom line is it was a dynamic, extremely hot fire. Whenever we could do prepping on houses, we’d get out there and remove stuff from the fronts and sides of houses; we cleared objects in driveways to make turnarounds easier for our engines; opened gates and identified where water tanks and hydrants were. We prepped for the fire almost as much as we chased it. A lot of tactics were used in different stages of the fire; as it moved, we had to adapt and change to it. We have a lot of really awesome volunteers that are highly trained and adaptable and follow directions, and were accounted for at all times. For the high level of risk they faced, they did exceptionally well.
“During the fire, we had two field promotions, including promoting Captain Kevin Everly to Battalion Chief and Driver Operator David Dahl to Captain. Part of the reason was we knew we were going to be resource-light, and we would need to split up our crews into smaller groups. Usually our two battalion chiefs can each have oversight over several engines in different geographical areas. In this case, we had so much impact to so many parts of our fire district that a few days into it, we drove to Santa Cruz and rented two more trucks. One rental truck became a battalion chiefs’ vehicle, and it was handed out to the newly promoted chief. We also brought back two out-of-service vehicles, including one that was totally stripped, to be sold and re-equipped them for use. All told, it was the rental pickup trucks, the contracted water trucks from Jim Walters, portable water tanks, the evacuation zones previously created by former Chief Kevin McClish, the evacuation order and planning for what might fail that helped us. Battalion Chief Everly and Captain Dahl really stepped up to a higher level, showed outstanding leadership and performed flawlessly in keeping our operational plan in place. Usually, when our volunteers show up for a call, they get on a vehicle depending on their timing and skill level. In this case, everyone was recalled and we were literally able to pick the dream team of every single vehicle. Another Driver Operator, Corey McVeigh, did an exceptional job for us. We gave him an engine and asked him to be captain, and paired him up with another driver operator/engineer, and he saved homes in places that other engines couldn’t. His team was able to fight the fire as it came through, withdraw from the area, re-engage with the fire at another location and keep fighting. There are two homes up in Fallen Leaf that are standing because Corey’s engine saved them.
“Everyone in this department grew. Whether they’ve been here for one year or 20. What we saw in terms of leadership was outstanding. As the incident progressed, I needed to remain engaged with CalFire to keep the communication lines open to relay and support the interests of the Boulder Creek Fire Protection District. I would take pictures of my notes and send them to the officers here to keep them informed. We did multiple daily operational briefings to keep everyone on the same page, and we’d share the incident action plan from CalFire. I asked Chief Kevin McClish (retired) to come back and help with our accountability board, so he assisted with resource tracking. We invited back local, former BCFD firefighters, and pretty much anyone that was a retiree or someone that was on our inactive list, to came back as a support personnel here at the station. We had people building a base of operations out of our property down town that rivaled the big camp, that frankly gave us the foundation to build our operations. Donations of supplies kept pouring in, it was amazing the generosity. I think by having that organizational structure back here, it set us up for success. We built a foundation that was so strong that, for the first week, we were really running an incident within an incident. Boulder Creek Fire was holding its own. Even when we merged with unified command, we were able to run our own operation here in terms of administration, logistics, planning and resource tracking and even the paperwork.
“Along the way, I contacted the Boulder Creek Recreation District (they lease the large community hall behind the firehouse from BCFD) and asked if we could use the building as sleeping quarters, and they were happy to support us. By this time, we had groups in place, so we had a COVID Protection Group that sanitized everything regularly, took the temperature of everyone who entered the premises and manned all the wash stations that were set up. The last thing I wanted was to go from 100% life and structure saving to having a COVID outbreak, so we thought of everything we could. We established a foundation so our teams could focus on their work of operations and rescues, and that’s where our support people came in. It was extremely helpful. We went from 44 volunteers to almost 60 people helping out at the station—those who were support staff made everything else successful. We brought in a laundry trailer and had it staffed so we could have fresh clothes every other day. We brought in a shower trailer, and that alleviated some of the burden on the station, because it’s not built to house 60 people. We set up a storage area for food and water, and borrowed an ice machine from a local business. We had fuel delivered every four days, because we not only were fueling our vehicles, but also the generator that was running 24/7. From past winters, we already had the mindset of how to take care of ourselves and protect town; the difference is we’re usually doing that out of our own houses, running 911 calls and returning to sleep at home but none of us could do that this time. Several of our crew members lost a lot of the same stuff other people did, but everyone just stayed here, even the three firefighter families who lost their homes. And in all of this, we didn’t have one single injury. Not one. We’ve never been in such a high-risk situation, and we’ve never had this many people on our roster. Not a driving accident, nothing. And we were able to help other agencies with their minor injuries and bumps, poison oak and rolled ankles and we came out untouched. We’re very lucky. [Reporter’s note: As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” This reporter can’t cite a better example that thoroughly proves this quote.]
“Up at our Jamison Creek Station (BCFD Station 2), the fire burned all the way around it. Nearly all the structures nearby were lost, but the building itself was saved. I’m not sure who was defending the station, or if it was just smiled upon, but the station is standing with no damage. I’m very grateful for that. There are still a lot of stories to be told—I need people to write down their memories of the incident—it was so long, and so many days and so many houses, it just all ran together. At the beginning, our crew was running 24-hour shifts with 1-3 hour naps in between, and we did that for about 72 hours, and then tried to transition to longer breaks, but that still only allowed for roughly three hours of sleep at a time. Eventually we got up to eight hours of actual sleep, but it took a lot to get there. Just fighting the adrenaline and stress made sleep challenging, and no one wants to fight fire in their own hometown. After a while, we started doing mental health checks on our crews. I’ve read enough after-action reviews of other fires to know that firefighters who battle a blaze in their own town have difficulty with the mental part of it. It’s hard driving through your home town and seeing houses you know and love going up in smoke, so we kept reminding them to take care of themselves and just do the best they could. We would run our vehicles until they were on fumes, and then have to return to the station to refuel. Thank goodness we have an amazing fleet here of really nice equipment with all the right stuff on it that are specifically built to travel in our mountains. That’s thanks to our townspeople, right there.
“Once we got all of our logistical support in place, we knew we needed to begin planning for winter—beef up our supplies, track what resources we had in reserve, and start to order things for prep work, so we had to reorganize our entire station. We *know* what happens in the winter here in SLV. We’re preparing for mudslides and road closures and infrastructure failures, because we’ve got problems in a normal winter, and this winter isn’t going to be normal.
“Looking back on what we faced, one additional problem we had was some of our residents weren’t leaving when the evacuation order came through. As a result, we had to go back and use everything we had to convince those individuals to leave, so every time I had to send an engine or a Battalion Chief to talk to those who stayed behind, that was one less home we were defending, or planning to defend. Our number one priority is to protect life, so when we would go to prep a home before the fire came through, and we saw people inside, we had to engage with the people instead of getting the property ready. If cars were coming down a one-lane road when we were trying to go up, it would slow us down even further. In the future, I hope everyone will heed evacuation warnings and orders. We had over 90% evacuation on the initial order, that’s a pretty good percentage.
“Another area where residents can have a big impact is in creating defensible space. After the fire blows through a neighborhood, we get to go back in and see which houses survived, and why: the grass was mowed, the trees were thinned up, and that gave us a fighting chance. Defensible space is really important for us living in the forest. People used to say that this was the asbestos forest that it won’t burn, but those of us who have been fighting fire as a career here have seen redwoods burn, and they burn hot. I think people will have an entirely new appreciation of defensible space, and I hope that someday we can build a program through the district that will assist people with creating that space around their home. It takes money and time and personnel, but I’d like to see it happen, because we could be in the same situation in a week or a month or a year.
“Some of our local loggers and tree companies helped to save many homes by using their skills in falling or cutting up trees that blocked roads. We never asked them to do anything, but miraculously these huge trees had been sawed out of the way before we were heading out, or before we were trying to retreat out of areas where trees and fallen poles had blocked us. Somebody was coming up and sawing these things into pieces to keep the roads clear and keeping our access open. They were guardian angels, for sure. We don’t carry saws that large, and there’s no way we could have fought fires, saved neighborhoods and cut our way in and out on our own. Some of those guys cut fire lines behind homes, and moved wood piles away from houses. It would be impressive to count how many homes they saved—the numbers would be staggering, but I don’t think those humble people would ever tell us.
“Ultimately, I want everyone to know how much these firefighters care about this town. There wasn’t a second that anybody here said, ‘I think we need to go.' We had hope and optimism from the start, and this command staff kept pumping that into everyone here so we could keep working without looking back and worrying about the things we couldn’t save. Everyone here is sad for the town. It was eerie not having anyone from town here, and not knowing if anything was going to be here when they came back, but we had optimism. There will be people who will be angry or sad, but I hope they know we did our best. Some people are angry that they had to evacuate; others are upset because their home was lost and their neighbor’s is standing. I get it. But I hope that they don’t choose to reflect that on the firefighters. We hope to see everyone come back to our fundraisers at the fire department so we can say, ‘We did the best we could do, and it’s so nice to see you again. Welcome back.’”