Veteran Firefighter: Rocky Fire Has 'Most Extreme Fire Behavior I've Ever Seen'

Veteran Firefighter: Rocky Fire Has 'Most Extreme Fire Behavior I've Ever Seen'

3:01pm Aug 10, 2015
A firefighter monitors flames from the Rocky Fire as it approaches a home late last month. The wildfire has consumed thousands of acres in just over a week.
A firefighter monitors flames from the Rocky Fire as it approaches a home late last month. The wildfire has consumed thousands of acres in just over a week.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
  • A firefighter monitors flames from the Rocky Fire as it approaches a home late last month. The wildfire has consumed thousands of acres in just over a week.

    A firefighter monitors flames from the Rocky Fire as it approaches a home late last month. The wildfire has consumed thousands of acres in just over a week.

    Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

  • Firefighters with a California Office of Emergency Services strike team take a break from mopping up hot spots on the Rocky Fire. Career firefighters working the blaze say they've never before seen a wildfire burn with such intensity and extreme behavior.

    Firefighters with a California Office of Emergency Services strike team take a break from mopping up hot spots on the Rocky Fire. Career firefighters working the blaze say they've never before seen a wildfire burn w

    Kirk Siegler / NPR

On the northern flank of the Rocky Fire, the blackened forest floor is smoldering. The blaze, which ignited more than a week ago in Northern California, quickly engulfed miles of dry brush and oak forests, at one point consuming 20,000 acres in just a few hours. The land it's left behind is eerie, hot and powdery underfoot.

Every time firefighter Gary Mahlberg sets his boot down, a sooty cloud of dust shoots up. He says he's never before encountered a wildfire this intense or hard to predict.

"In the 26 years I've been in the fire service, this is the most extreme fire behavior I've ever seen," Mahlberg says.

He's the captain of a four-person "strike team" from the fire department in Vacaville, Calif. The team's fire engine is currently assigned to douse out any hot spots that could flare back up and send embers flying into unburned terrain during afternoon winds.

"We were told get anything that's still hot or smoking 150 feet from the roadway, because eventually they'd like to reopen Highway 20 for the locals," he says.

The Rocky Fire easily jumped that road recently, burning right up to a mobile home nearby. Firefighters were able to save it, but blackened ground remains in its front yard.

As more blazes burn like the Rocky Fire — erratic, fast moving and extremely hot and intense — firefighters like Mahlberg are having to make split-second decisions about whether a structure is worth the dangers of trying to save it. Before, they'd have maybe five minutes to assess whether a property is defensible; now, it's more like 30 seconds.

Mahlberg says it's become nearly impossible to stay ahead of these wildfires.

"Things are just so much more drier now," he says. "They're igniting a lot more easily than they have in the past."

Four years of drought coupled with record heat is stressing these trees and shrubs. Moisture content is at record lows. Touring the destruction this week, California Gov. Jerry Brown pointed to climate change, calling the Rocky Fire an unfortunate "new normal" for the state and the West in general.

But that's only part of the story behind the Rocky Fire's extreme behavior. Wildfires in the West have been suppressed for nearly a century. And even recently, prescribed — or intentionally set, low-intensity — fires have been resisted by locals. The result is dangerously dense vegetation.

Greg Guisti, a forest ecologist with the University of California, says there are consequences when unnatural fuel builds up in a changing climate.

"The 'do-nothing' approach has boxed us into a corner that is making it very difficult to control situations like we have over on the Rocky Fire and to minimize its impact to local communities," Guisti says.

All of this means that the job facing firefighters like Mahlberg is getting more dangerous.

"Things are just burning so much more rapidly than they have in the past — even the large timber and fuels here," Mahlberg says. "It's just moving a lot quicker than we can keep up with it."

There's only so much firefighters are going to be able to do to stop this kind of wildfire.

And that, almost everyone agrees, has become the new norm for firefighting.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

In Northern California, firefighters are making progress on the Rocky Fire, and some evacuees are beginning to return home. The flames ignited more than a week ago and quickly spread across miles of dry brush and oak forests. At one point, the fire engulfed 20,000 acres in just a few hours. Gov. Jerry Brown toured the destruction this week, and he pointed to climate change, calling the Rocky Fire the new normal for California and the West.

JERRY BROWN: This is really a real wake-up call because of the way this fire performed.

RATH: Many career firefighters working the Rocky Fire reported they've never encountered a blaze that burned this intense and that was this hard to predict. NPR's Kirk Siegler went out with the firefighters this week and sent this report.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: On the northern flank of the Rocky Fire, the blackened forest floor is smoldering. It's eerie. It's also hot and powdery underfoot. You can see how the fire was so intense when it moved through here that it incinerated everything. Every time Gary Mahlberg sets his boot down, a big sooty dust cloud shoots up.

GARY MAHLBERG: In the 26 years I've been in the fire service, this is the most extreme fire behavior I have ever seen.

SIEGLER: Mahlberg is captain of this four-person strike team from the Vacaville, Calif. Fire Department. Their engine is currently assigned to dousing out any hot spots that could flare back up and send embers flying into unburned terrain during the afternoon winds.

MAHLBERG: We were told get anything that's still hot or smoking 150 feet from the roadway, because eventually, they would like to reopen Highway 20 for the locals.

SIEGLER: To Mahlberg's left is Highway 20. The Rocky Fire easily jumped it the other day and burned right up to a mobile home. Firefighters were able to save it. There's blackened ground right up to its front yard and doghouse.

MAHLBERG: That's one of the things that we do when we go up to a home is we assess it and determine is this home defendable.

SIEGLER: As more blazes burn like the Rocky Fire - erratic, fast moving, and extremely hot and intense - firefighters like Mahlberg are having to make split-second decisions about whether a structure is worth trying to save. Maybe before they had five minutes to assess whether a property is defensible. Now, it's more like 30 seconds. And Mahlberg says it's become nearly impossible to stay ahead of these wildfires.

MAHLBERG: Yeah, things are just so much more drier now, they're igniting a lot more easily than they have in the past.

SIEGLER: Four years of drought coupled with record heat is stressing these trees and shrubs. Moisture content is at record lows. But that's only part of the story behind the Rocky Fire's extreme behavior.

GREG GIUSTI: Well, anyway, let's just stop here, have a look.

SIEGLER: Thirty miles to the West, University of California forest ecologist Greg Giusti is walking up the gravel driveway that leads to his research station.

GIUSTI: Look at the density of - I want you to just, you know, appreciate the density of the vegetation and the fact that there are no breaks.

SIEGLER: Giusti could be looking out on just about any forest in the West. From far away, this one looks like a thick, green, shag carpet covering the mountains. Wildfires have been suppressed here for nearly a century, and Giusti says more recently prescribed fires, or intentionally set low intensity burns, have been resisted by locals. No one likes to live around smoke, right? Well, there are consequences when you've got an unnatural fuel buildup and a changing climate.

GIUSTI: The do-nothing approach has boxed us into a corner that is making it very difficult to control situations like we have over the Rocky Fire and to minimize its impact to local communities.

SIEGLER: And all of this means that the job facing firefighters like Gary Mahlberg is getting more dangerous.

MAHLBERG: Things are just burning so much more rapidly than they have in the past, even the large timber and fuels here. It's just moving a lot quicker than we can keep up with it.

SIEGLER: For sure there's only so much firefighters are going to be able to do to stop this kind of wildfire. And that, almost everyone agrees, is the new norm. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Clearlake Oaks, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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