Witness California's record blazes through the eyes of frontline firefighters

Climate change, misguided fire suppression, population boom—the current wildfire crisis has been building for decades, and crews are now fighting in unprecedented conditions.

Thursday, September 17, 2020,
By David Helvarg
Photographs By Stuart Palley
Strong winds fueled the the Creek Fire's explosive growth after it started on September 4. By ...

Strong winds fueled the the Creek Fire's explosive growth after it started on September 4. By September 15 it had burned more than 212,000 acres, was just 16 percent contained, and was advancing deeper into the Sierra Nevada Mountains northeast of Fresno.

Photograph by Stuart Palley, National Geographic

It was a comfortable looking home in a high-risk location, on Stringtown Road in the wooded hills south of Lake Oroville, California—a brown wood house with a stone chimney and big picture windows facing the forest. The pleasantly cluttered garden had tomato plants, a glass flamingo, and an abalone shell. It was here that a Cal Fire task force, including a couple of engines and a dozen firefighters, decided to take a stand. They’d been pushed around by the Bear Fire for 24 hours. They would try to save at least one house.

Before passing through a police roadblock to meet the firefighters, I’d been to the rapidly growing Cal Fire base camp at the fairgrounds in Chico. Like all Cal Fire camps, it now requires passing through a “Mass Fever Screening” tent for COVID-19. Wearing a mask in California today, during a pandemic and a record-shattering fire season, serves a dual purpose. For days parts of this state have been competing with smoke-choked places in Oregon and Washington for the worst air quality in the world.

When I reached Oroville on September 9, the Bear Fire, the deadliest so far in 2020, had exploded in the hills north of the lake. Part of the North Complex fire, it had grown to 1,000 acres in its first half hour and advanced 30 miles in 18 hours. A wall of flame had destroyed the town of Berry Creek, including its fire station and fire truck—a grim reminder of the catastrophe that struck Paradise, California, just 14 miles to the northwest, in 2018.

Covered in ash and dirt, a CAL FIRE crew takes a break after a day spent building firelines to contain the El Dorado Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains. The men were working on little sleep and in extreme heat, cutting and scraping away vegetation.

Photograph by Stuart Palley, National Geographic

Heavy smoke prevented Cal Fire, which has the largest firefighting air corps in the world, from attacking the flames with any of its air tankers or helicopters. In Feather Falls, nine miles southeast of Berry Creek, bulldozer driver Zach Gutzman had managed to unload his vehicle from a low-bed truck and scrape a defensible, fuel-free space around a Cal Fire station—just 45 minutes before the flames surrounded him and other firefighters in that sanctuary. Not far away, a Conservation Camp prison inmate crew was overrun by the flames. Deploying their defence of last resort, the tent-like personal shelters they carry in their packs, they escaped with only two minor injuries. Their 17-person transport truck burned to its wheelbase.

On September 9, before I met them, Cal Fire engineer Dave Johnston, firefighters Chase Peterson, and Brant Bertagna and the rest of their Shasta–based crew, led by captain Aaron Grant, had joined other Cal Fire crews in a retreat from defensive lines they’d been unable to hold in the face of 40-mile-an-hour winds. In engines, crew buggies, bulldozers, and pick-up trucks, some 150 firefighters convoyed slowly down narrow, twisting roads, through dust and smoke, to a two-acre safety zone bulldozed on flat ground. Behind them the Bear Fire raged on. Soon it had jumped the lake.

That night, as Grant’s crew prepared to defend the house on Stringtown Road, they could see and hear the crackling, sometimes lightly roaring fire on a smoky ridgeline above the house.

In the morning I followed Johnston, Peterson, and Bertagna as they parked their boxy red fire engine a mile down the road; another crew had radioed for help with some spot fires. Dragging yellow fire hose, the three men struggled over, around, but mostly through tangles of underbrush. There was manzanita, California flannelbush, cocklebur, and poison oak; there were fallen branches and snags, pine cones and needles. It’s this overgrown and littered understory that acts as a fire ladder, allowing flames to shoot to the treetops and become devastating crown fires.

Many trees in the area had been previously killed by bark beetles, and fire crews have been hampered by the danger of falling trees. As they fought to save the town of Camp Nelson, the fire was also impacting sequoia groves.

Photograph by Stuart Palley, National Geographic

Johnston, a compact, bright-eyed man with a shaved head and neat mustache, scrambled over a fallen oak tree to spray down a burning stump. He called for more hose, and Peterson pulled a pack off his back and reeled out hose with a hard flick, like an angler casting a fly. They worked briskly, advancing 300 yards in just over five minutes, hosing down one hot spot after another. Their fire truck carried 500 gallons of water and over half a mile of hose.

The weather overnight had given them a bit of a break, with cooler temperatures and higher humidity. It was looking less likely that the North Complex would threaten Paradise, the town that was just beginning to recover from the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people. Johnston and his wife lost their home in Paradise. So did his sister, brother, mum and dad, cousin—pretty much his entire family.

“After I lost my home, the ‘boots on the ground’ took care of me and my family,” he recalled. “Boots on the ground” is shorthand for fellow firefighters.

On September 14, when President Donald Trump visited the devastated region—and predicted Earth’s climate would soon cool—the North Complex fire had still not been contained. It had consumed more than a quarter million acres, killed countless wild animals, and destroyed 2,000 structures, most of them homes. It had also killed 15 people, with seven still missing.

As fires grow, so do the losses

Cal Fire says California and the West’s wildfires have grown larger, hotter, faster, and more dangerous, particularly in the last six to seven years.

In California alone fires have burned more than three million acres so far this year, close to double the record set in 2018. And it’s only September. There are four months to go in the official fire season.

On the 150-mile drive from my home in the Bay Area to the base camp in Chico, I saw the sky go from pumpkin orange to pink, mustard, slate grey, and then mud brown—but never to blue. Nor was it ever free of smoke.

“These last few years, each year gets worse. It’s like California is going through a reset,” said John Messina, fire chief for Butte County, where the North Complex fire is expected to continue burning for weeks, even months, to come. The fire station in Berry Creek was one of his. “I’ve been in Cal Fire for 30 years, and we used to talk about 5,000 acres being a big fire.” The North Complex is already 50 times that size, but only the fourth largest fire this year in California.

CAL FIRE's Boeing 747 air tanker drops flame retardant to slow the spread of the El Dorado fire, which has been burning since September 4 in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles. Over the weekend of September 12-13, as the fire moved up steep slopes through dense vegetation, its flames were visible from 40 miles away .

Photograph by Stuart Palley, National Geographic

To the west, on the other side of the Central Valley, the August Complex fire has burned more than 750,000 acres—nearly twice the size of the previous record-holder, the Mendocino Complex fire, which struck the same area in the summer of 2018 and took five months to contain. UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain predicted on September 14 that the August Complex would become California’s first million-acre fire.

“Every year it’s more acreage burned, more homes lost,” said Captain Albert Hernandez, who was leading a California Conservation Corps hand crew of 18-to-25-year-old volunteers (not to be confused with the more experienced Conservation Camp inmates – who man minimum security correctional facilities, staffed by a mixture of fire-line qualified crew and camp staff). They hailed from Ventura County, near Los Angeles. I met them working to hold the fire line at a road junction two miles down from the house the Shasta crew was guarding.

“Just since I joined in 2006, my fire season has extended to year-long,” Hernandez said. “It used to be May till December, where you’d start with fires up here and then later with the Santa Ana winds they’d move to southern California. Now it’s everywhere all the time.”

Captain Aaron Grant’s Shasta crew had been deployed to the North Complex for 24 days, on three of which they got to sleep in motel beds rather than on the ground. “You look forward to doing your laundry and taking your boots off,” Grant admitted.

As infernos raged across the state, firefighters—and their resources—were spread thin. This crew was fighting the Valley Fire near San Diego on September 5. It has burned more than 17,000 acres. The photographer saw homes burning with no firefighters present.

Photograph by Stuart Palley, National Geographic

He’s unusual for Cal Fire: Rather than starting out as a firefighter, he joined in his mid-30s after years in another occupation. “I was a building contractor and got tired of swinging a hammer. So now I carry hose packs up burning hills,” he said with a smile, joking but not complaining.

Grant told me about a fire his crew had fought in a big stand of timber a week earlier. “It was just fully ripping and the sound was amazing, like a freight train, a thousand jet engines, like a lion roaring. When you hear that you just know you’re a speck. It puts humans in their place.”

An agency evolves with the threat

Cal Fire began early in the 20th century as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention. As recently as the early 1990s it was mainly concerned with balancing forest protection with timber production. But as wildfires grew larger and deadlier in recent decades, emergency response has consumed more of the department’s resources. Eventually it rebranded itself as Cal Fire.

There are several reasons for this evolution. First, a century of overzealous fire suppression—by Cal Fire itself and by the federal agencies that manage nearly half of the state’s land—ignored the role of natural fire in maintaining forest health and preventing fuel from building up. Second, a population boom over the last half century has seen homes and towns proliferate on the “wildland-urban interface,” creating more flammable tinder and putting more people and investment in harm’s way.

Finally, there is fossil-fuel-fired climate change. Its effects have included a 500-year drought and a bark beetle infestation that have killed 150 million trees in California, as well as a summer featuring the hottest August in the state’s history. The dry hot air sucked moisture out of the forest litter and vegetation, making them more likely to ignite.

To deal with the growing threat, Cal Fire has become the second largest fire department in the U.S., after New York City’s. When you mention that to some agency people, they’re quick to insist that it’s actually the largest “all-risk fire department.” Cal Fire doesn’t just fight wildfires, like the U.S. Forest Service. It also contracts with a number of counties to run their fire departments—in rural areas such as Shasta, suburbanising ones like Butte, and urban centers such as Riverside in southern California. In those places the agency responds to daily medical emergencies, car and house fires, and other routine firehouse calls.

With 8,000 employees and a budget of $2.5 billion (£2 billion), Cal Fire runs more than 900 fire stations, 343 fire engines, 58 bulldozers, and 42 conservation camps for 3,000 inmates. (Their number was greatly reduced this year by an early release program to limit the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons.) It owns some 70 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and leases a 747 and a DC-10, both of which are used to drop fire retardant. It recently received the first of 12 new Firehawk helicopters (similar to Army Blackhawks) and seven big C-130s. The C-130s will be used as air tankers.

Since the 2018 disaster, Cal Fire has expanded its program to “treat” overgrown forests by thinning the understory mechanically, or by setting prescribed burns that mimic natural, low-intensity fire. It now gets $200 million (£160 million) a year for this work from carbon fees levied by the state’s climate cap-and-trade program. But Cal Fire has identified a need to treat half a million acres a year for the next decade, which could cost ten times that amount.

A photo taken from the historic Bloomer Hill fire lookout, which CAL FIRE managed to save, offers a look at how the Bear Fire affected the surrounding forest.

Photograph by Stuart Palley, National Geographic

The state of California has not committed to that. It also does not yet appear ready to embrace “planned retreat,” the idea of creating incentives to encourage people to relocate out of harm’s way. The private insurance industry, on the other hand, has already announced its intent to withdraw rapidly from high-risk fire zones.

Boots on the ground

The Shasta crew spent the night around the house on Stringtown Road, mostly on the deck, awake, watching for the fire to come roaring over the ridge. Thanks to the cooler air and humidity, it never did.

Around 4 a.m. Dave Johnston and Chase Peterson had an unsettling encounter near the garage. “I saw something off the trail and thought it was embers,” Peterson said. Then it blinked.” The mountain lion they could barely see stared at them for a long minute before casually walking off. “It was not afraid of us at all,” Chase noted.

Later that morning, a new and larger Cal Fire team assembled at the house, with bulldozers, engines, pick-ups, and inmate crews from the Sugar Pine and Trinity River conservation camps. The 'dozers cleared a safe zone, maybe an acre or so, on a rise between the house and the road. Battalion chief Gus Boston stood below the deck and briefed his captains: The house would serve as an anchor point to fight the southeast end of the fire.

“Get four 'dozers up to the ridge. I want to cut a line down there,” Boston said, pointing to a map on a small iPad.

The plan was to cut a horseshoe-shaped firebreak up the hill through thick stands of trees below the ridgeline, then down into the ravine behind the house. The break would defend the house and the road beyond, and, Boston hoped, “shoulder” the fire towards Lake Oroville, rather than let it follow light winds and heavy fuel loads uphill towards the house and road, or along the ravine towards other homes to the east.

Before Boston was done speaking, the buzzing rip of chainsaws began, and the earthy cla-chunk of hand tools, as dozens of orange-suited inmate firefighters swarmed straight up the hillside, making a three-foot-wide break that looked like a perfect hiking trail. They laid yellow hose along it, to be ready. As soon as they were out of sight, a line of clanking bulldozers followed them to widen the break. Two of them turned down into the ravine—and one promptly got stuck on the steep, unstable slope.

“We’re stuck,” the driver reported on the radio. “There’s flares to our right. We’re going to need a winch.”

At the same moment, in the opposite direction, a column of dark smoke began to rise above the road. That crucial line of defence had been breached, another voice reported over the radio.

“Spot fire just crossed the line. We need an engine going in. We need crew to roll NOW!”

Immediately the Trinity River inmates, who were resting after cutting the horseshoe, hustled back up the hill that rose above the road. Flames eight to ten feet high crackled in the thick brush. With chainsaws and hand tools, the crew tore into the ashy smoke, breaking up burning logs and other woody debris that could feed the fire. Just above them, a squirrel jumped from a burning tree onto the branches of another.

Soon it was all over. An engine crew arrived and blasted the road-jumping fire with a column of water. A short time later, two bulldozers pulled their stranded mate back up the steep slope while another backed away, breaking only a few trees and chains in the process. The sense of urgency soon subsided, thanks to the not-so-quiet professionalism of the firefighters.

It was a good day for them. For once the weather had worked in their favour and things had gone their way.

A bad climate for fire

The next day Governor Gavin Newsom joined the firefighters at a park on Lake Oroville to survey the damage and talk to reporters.

“California is in the midst of an existential climate crisis,” he said. “It was just two years ago that this area saw the deadliest wildfire in our history. Now, just a few miles away, another deadly wildfire has ripped through these same communities. There is no doubt—climate change is here, and it is happening faster than most had anticipated.”

It is not going away anytime soon. Nor are the problems of overgrown forests or sprawling human development. It took decades to create the conditions of California’s fire crisis, and it may take a generation to fully undo them. In the meantime, California needs Cal Fire—an agency devoted to warding off catastrophe.

It’s widely seen as a model. Delegations from dozens of states and at least 20 nations, from Montana to Mongolia, have visited to learn how to create an “all risk” fire agency at the scale of a nation-state. The climate crisis, after all, is global.

On Stringtown Road, the boots on the ground from Shasta, Butte, Sugar Pine, Trinity River could celebrate a small victory. They had saved someone’s home.

“And what’s cool for the ones we save—they don’t even know we were here,” Grant said.

Unless of course they notice the acres of bulldozed dirt, the downed and scorched trees, and the giant tire marks. But even so they probably wouldn’t know who to thank.

A CAL FIRE crew working the Bear Fire near the Bloomer Hill fire lookout. Retardants dropped by air tankers can help slow the spread of wildfires, CAL FIRE aviation chief Dennis Brown told Helvarg, "but it’s boots on the ground that put out fires.”

Photograph by Stuart Palley, National Geographic
California-based photographer Stuart Palley—a qualified wildland firefighter who has photographed more than 100 fires across the state —is documenting the devastating effects of the 2020 fires.
David Helvarg, a former war correspondent, has written numerous books—most recently Rescue Warriors, about the U.S. Coast Guard. He's the executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation organisation.
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