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Fire In The Backyard

In Comptche there’s nothing like a wave of fire exploding across your neighbor’s fields headed for your home to instill a love for friends, CalFire, and your local volunteer fire department. At home alone, with my husband on jury duty in Ukiah and my daughter off visiting local friends, the Comptche Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD) pager went off with a call out to fight a grass fire. Within ten minutes our 44 acres were smokey. I drove to the CVFD Fire House to see what was going on and found it empty of vehicles with everyone up the hill behind this building fighting fire as a home burned up there.

It’s a straight shot of open rolling dry grass meadows and timber from the Fire House on Flynn Creek to our property a mile up Comptche-Ukiah Road from the store. I raced back home to ever-increasing smoke and started turning on hoses and sprinklers. This is where the joys of living in a small town and knowing your neighbors kicked in. Cosmo Knoebber grew up with my kids. I had seen him briefly when I stopped at the firehouse and he stopped on his way home to see if I needed help. While he helped wet down buildings and yard I collected photo albums and my computer and necessities in the house. Cosmo loaded my car for me and I aimed the car for quick access down the driveway, engine running with the parking brake on, in case I needed to make a hasty evacuation to the county road. I grabbed a garden hose and with Cosmo continued spraying things down. Daughter’s car came racing up the driveway and she checked to see I was OK before she started loading possessions from her cabin.

It may not be politically correct or proper to use the term “Oh SHIT…” — but that’s what we all said as the flames advanced, standing there with our garden hoses. But HURRAH! CalFire with convict fire crews from Parlin Fork and Chamberlin Creek Conservation Camps came flying up the driveway and immediately started scraping fire lines around our dwelling. They suggested I evacuate, but it wasn't mandatory. I didn't.

This is a good time to remind folks about the concept your local fire department talks about called “Defensible Space.” An even more horrendous fire swept through Comptche in 1931 near our home and our family has been big believers in mowed open meadow and lawns around dwellings, barns and shops. We maintain open spaces big enough to drive fire trucks around if need be. That may very well have saved our buildings this time. Those arriving fire trucks easily maneuvered around all our structures. We also have a standpipe with plumbing fittings that can connect to a fire hose and our 2,000 gallon water storage tank. If needed the fire trucks could have connected to our water system for fire protection. They didn’t need to because an Albion-Little River Fire Department water tender showed up to help.

Fire lines scratched down to bare dirt really do work. We watched with doubt, concern and worry as the flames progressed towards our dwellings through grass, then hit the dirt and stopped. Firefighters with hoses stood just beyond that dirt demarcation line and the fire went no further on the ground.

Up in the timber it was a different story. Flames would approach through the brush and duff and start up a tree. Sometimes within just one minute the entire tree would explode with plumes of fire waving over it… Then, poof! — a skeleton tree still standing on the skyline. What amazed us is that one tree in a redwood clump would do this while surrounded by four other trees that didn’t catch fire. Was it drought stricken? Dead? Who knows. One tree vanishes and others survive.

CalFire cleared small trees and cut lower limbs on big ones near the fire line for safety. When they headed towards our olive trees with chainsaws my husband, now home from jury duty, ran yelling NO! up the hill and got them to stop. Convict crews stayed all night and into the next day watching for flare ups. As I write this there is more than 1,000 feet of fire hoses going up our hill and pump motors are running 24/7 moving water up and through four tankers to mop up operations on adjoining commercial timber holdings.

I never guessed social media would play a role for us in what is now called the Flynn Fire, but it did. My son, who now lives in Chicago, first saw the fire on a Comptche Facebook page and called home. A member of the Albion Little River Volunteer Fire Department who arrived with the water tender remembered my son from high school here, was taking photos and e-mailing them from his phone to my son in Chicago.

Many women friends chided me online for not evacuating when it was suggested I do so. People wanted me to post updates on Facebook. I heard from friends all over the USA in one day due to Facebook.

It was scary to go to bed Monday night. Looking out our second story windows there was fire in places up in the tops of trees glowing deep within the tree trunks 60 feet above the ground. I hope those fires don’t smolder until the fall rains. Are those trees easy to get to? Of course not. Can CalFire be sure those embers are out? I hope so.

Tuesday morning, there must have been 50 firefighting vehicles parked around the CVFD firehouse. I saw someplace a figure of 400+ firefighters in town. CalFire was able to throw a lot of manpower and equipment on the Flynn Fire because no other major blaze was burning in northern California at this moment. Tuesday night our fields and meadows were still smoking. After the fire skipped and jumped through our meadows and trees it moved into commercial timberlands. There, they fought the blaze with fire retardant dropped from six circling fixed-wing aircraft. Helicopters dumped bags of water scooped out of local stock ponds on the blaze. We can’t be sure yet but we think we contributed about 15 acres to the 200 total acres burned. But it was only grass, bushes and trees that burnt. Our dwellings stand, due to our own fire prevention measure and the work of firefighters.

There is no definitive word yet on what started the fire but rumors abound. One family lost everything but the clothes on their backs as their home went up in flames. Our next door neighbor lost a barn and trailer. A major concern was for the welfare and whereabouts of horses in meadows surrounded by charred fencing.

The Comptche community knows how to work together. We learned during the 2008 Lightning Strike fires. Neighbors look out for each other. The kitchen in the CVFD Fire House had donated food being cooked by volunteers and delivered to fire crews. “What can I do to help?” was the common phrase of the day.

What did my family learn from the Flynn Fire? I know it sounds redundant, but make your home landscape fire safe. Local volunteer fire departments and online sources like the Mendocino County Fire Safe Council can supply ideas on how to do this. Make sure a full size fire truck can get up your driveway and turn around. Have your street number posted by the county road. If your water system permits it put in a hook-up compatible with your local volunteer fire department and let them know you have done this. Join the local volunteer fire department! And remain confident that the friendships you develop with your neighbors up and down your road over the years are indeed important. While all the firefighters and convict crews are real heroes, our neighbor Cosmo Knoebber is the Tahja family’s local hero for stopping and helping us in our time of need.

As rumors were rampant early in this drama when I wrote this story, and often incorrect, I am happy to say only one home was lost. The rest of the destroyed structures were barns and outbuildings. The fire burned within 20 feet of our homes on the Tahja Ranch where it was stopped by CalFire crews.

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