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A Peach Of A Fire

Antoinette and I were about to leave Boonville for Ukiah on Thursday July 5 when our pagers went off. We immediately checked if they signaled an ambulance emergency. They did not, so we didn’t have to run to the truck. Instead we walked down the driveway. The 911 caller had reported “black smoke in the area of Hwy 128 / Peachland.” That’s not far from our house on Anderson Valley Way. We wanted to see for ourselves.

Sure enough, there was smoke billowing up east of the highway, and it was a lot closer than Peachland. It seemed to be right across the highway behind what is officially known as County Road 150B East. The west side of that intersection takes you to the elementary school. In local emergency response lingo, the junction is known as “AV2.”

We hustled out to AV2 in time to see Anderson Valley Fire Department Chief Andres Avila in his command vehicle. But he wasn’t going into the fire area. He was coming out of 150B East and turning southwest on 128 toward Boonville. How could he have gotten to AV2 from the firehouse so soon after the page? Even more confusing, why was he leaving the scene of the fire? As the first responder, Avila was what we call “IC” (for incident commander). Watching IC leave a fire so soon after it started was a head-scratcher.

Then it wasn’t. As the smoke began to billow closer, I realized that Avila was leaving the “foot” of the fire (where it started) and racing to get between the fire and Boonville. It was not hard to figure out his logic. If the fire went east up Octopus Mountain, it would burn no structures and be easy to attack from the air with fire retardant. But the wind direction was to the southeast, toward Boonville only a mile away, and there was plenty of dry fuel in between to sustain a growing wildfire. A line of cleared earth, free of fuel, would have to be cut between the fire and the town. And because many of Cal-Fire’s Mendocino engines and firefighters were in Lake County on another fire, the Anderson Valley Fire Department would have to shoulder much of that burden.

Sure enough, Avila went up Deer Meadow Road to reconnoiter the terrain between the fire and the town. He also directed another arriving engine to set up staging for all incoming units at the base of Deer Meadow Road. These actions proved critical to the events that unfolded.

A successful fire attack is a well-oiled machine. Each arriving crew checks in with IC, gets an assignment, and moves out with their vehicle to execute it. The ground attack on the fire is apportioned into “divisions,” each with its own commander. Engines, crews, water tenders and bulldozers are applied to the divisions according to need and timing. The chain of command expands and evolves to fit the incident, so that no one is managing more than a few other people or units. Information flows to where it’s needed, so that crews on the fireline can concentrate on the demanding physical tasks required to safely encircle a fire, deprive it of fuel to expand, and lay thousands of feet of firehose for putting it out.

One of the most critical early decisions is where to stage all incoming resources, so they can be dispatched most effectively. That’s why Avila quickly designated the beginning stretch of Deer Meadow Road for this purpose: close to the fire, but a safe distance from it with plenty of room for vehicles and logistics.

Another decisive concern is how to divide up the fire. Avila established divisions for the right and left flanks, and a third division based well up Deer Meadow Road with responsibility for protecting residences if necessary. He then transferred overall command of the fire to Jake Serrano, a Mendocino-based Cal-Fire Battalion Chief.

In California, Cal-Fire manages all wildland fires, regardless of how many other agencies contribute resources. So handing the reins to Serrano was a normal step for Avila, as chief of a local volunteer fire department. But in this case there were some additional factors in play.

One is the strong relationship that Chief Avila and his predecessor, Colin Wilson, have built with Cal-Fire over many years. The trust and cooperation are mutual. Just as important is AVFD’s ability to rapidly field a sizeable force of well-equipped, well-trained firefighters. Finally, by handing off the IC role Avila could take responsibility for operations: a deceptively simple title which actually means directing the ground attack on the fire. He could bring his local knowledge to bear, and he could delegate operations to his most experienced people, including battalion chiefs Clay Eubank and Roy Laird and long-time Philo fire captain Don Gowan.

Avila certainly got a fast start. Rhett Pardini, son of AVFD firefighter Ed Pardini, pointed out the fire to his dad shortly after 3:00. Ed called the firehouse to ask if someone had a permit for a controlled burn that afternoon. No one did, which meant the fire was wild.

Avila left the firehouse before the 911 system was activated at 3:12 pm, which is why I saw him leaving the foot of the fire before most other units had even mobilized. In the intervening moments, he had assessed the fire’s size (four acres), determined its direction (toward Boonville), and calmly extinguished the flames on two barn-like structures at the fire’s northwestern edge.

Cal-Fire’s air attack also began fast, with an overhead spotting plane directing retardant drops by lower-flying planes. Soon a Cal-Fire helicopter was pulling water from a nearby vineyard pond and dropping it onto hotspots. The air squadron confirmed Avila’s strategy that the best way to attack the Peach Fire was to “go for the head and then flank it,” as Serrano put it.

To understand this, it’s helpful to know the classic approach to fighting a small wildland fire. The basic idea is to encircle it by sending fire crews around both flanks. Engines, equipment and firefighters on each flank constitute a division – in this case division Alpha on the left flank and division Zulu on the right. Each division moves parallel to the fire but outside it, scraping the earth clean of fuel so the fire cannot spread side to side. The crews also aim to move forward faster than the fire, so that they meet up ahead of the fire’s front edge.

In hot summer conditions, however, fires can outrace containment, jump firelines, and defeat the attack strategy. That’s why Cal-Fire’s air attack focused on bombing hotspots near the head of the fire: to slow its progress, lower its temperature, and prevent flying embers. The retardant planes also laid down precision drops to help fire crews with their encirclement strategy. The importance of this soon became obvious.

On the Peach Fire – so called because the initial dispatch mentioned Peachland Road – Avila had initially assigned division Alpha to Don Gowan. When Cal-Fire crews began arriving in force, they took over on the left flank. According to Serrano, a typical “initial high dispatch” by Cal-Fire would include 8 or 9 engines staffed with firefighters, 3 dozers, and 5 crews of inmate firefighters from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). But due to commitments to the County Fire, Cal-Fire came to the Peach Fire with only 5 engines and 3 inmate crews (from the Chamberlain Creek and Parlin Fork CDCR facilities in Fort Bragg).

That meant there was another flank to cover, and Avila, anticipating the situation, had assigned that flank to his own firefighters, led by Eubank. A single dozer and hand crews in division Zulu had to fight their way through scrubby brush along the fire’s right flank to Witherell Creek, which comes down from the hills to cross under Highway 128 at the Little Red Schoolhouse museum. Once they reached Witherell Creek, Zulu would bushwhack up the creek to get to the southeastern corner of Octopus Mountain, and finally turn left again to climb the mountain and meet division Alpha. In other words, they had to beat the fire south toward Boonville, then beat the fire east to the base of the hills, and then beat the fire up the mountain. Not exactly a walk in the park on an 85-degree afternoon with steep slopes.

Both Avila and Serrano recall numerous conversations with the air attack squadron, particularly to support Zulu division’s progress on the first leg of its march along the right flank, parallel to 128. Still, the land that Zulu traversed was heavily dotted with chemise, a scrubby brush that can quickly ignite in the right conditions. It’s also scratchy and hard to move through. While a dozer pushed slowly through the brush to scrape a fireline, firefighters dragged large-diameter firehouse with them, connecting long lengths together to maintain a continuous line that would become thousands of feet long. To remove plants or scrape terrain the dozer couldn’t, they used big hoes known as McLeods (pronounced “MickLOUD”), and combination axe/hoes called Pulaskis.

Up on Deer Meadow Road, some residents of the subdivision were advised by emergency services of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office that they might need to evacuate. But due to the fast response by AVFD and Cal-Fire, no actual evacuation was ever required or ordered.

The sun was low in the west when the initial attack began to slow. Division Zulu had progressed to the point where it would turn north toward the mountain to meet Alpha, but hours of heavy labor had taken a toll. The firefighters’ initial adrenaline had worn off, the sprint becoming a marathon. And now they literally had a mountain to climb. Fortunately, fresh Cal-Fire crews arrived from Laytonville around 7:00 pm, so operations could ask IC for reinforcements for division Zulu. The request was granted, and both the fireline and the hose lay began to accelerate upward on the right flank. “That’s when we started to see the possibility of victory,” Avila remembers.

Meanwhile, division Alpha had succeeded in cutting a line up the left flank of the fire, but the slope was so steep that fire engines could not pump water all the way to the top of Octopus Mountain. Cal-Fire then resorted to the oldest known form of water delivery to a fire: humans. CDCR firefighters filled backpacks with water and humped them up the last 50 feet of vertical elevation to reach the top of Octopus Mountain and snuff the flames at the crest.

It was dusk when Zulu could see Alpha coming around the back crest of the mountain, and fully dark when initial containment was achieved at a little over 90 acres. The firefighters’ work was far from over, however. While the earliest responding Anderson Valley units were released beginning after 10:00 pm, later arrivals continued working to ensure full containment which came long past midnight. The department’s two water tenders stayed out all night to keep the engines supplied, finally coming off the fire the next morning around 8:00 am. Their relief stayed on scene until well into Friday afternoon.

When I talked separately with Avila and Serrano afterward, their comments were remarkably similar. Both praised the excellent coordination between Cal-Fire and AVFD. Both acknowledged the hard, physical work their crews had performed, and both noted that the most important thing of all is what did not happen: no one was hurt, no structures were destroyed, and the fire was contained before it had any chance of reaching Boonville. “A really good stop,” Serrano said. In the understated language of fire service officers, that’s almost a jump for joy.

Avila had a moment of true pleasure when he recalled the reaction of his Cal-Fire counterparts to something they were not used to seeing: a local volunteer department fielding 11 vehicles and 26 firefighters, all supported by yet more volunteers. One Cal-Fire captain asked Avila, “Where are you getting all these people?” The answer, of course, is that he’s getting them from our amazing Anderson Valley community, which thrives on people helping people.

If you have read this far, I hope you’ll entertain a few reminders. Please clear that defensible space around your buildings if you have not already done so. Make sure your address is clearly posted where emergency responders can see it from the road. Enroll in the ambulance/helicopter membership discount program offered to local residents. Sign up online for Mendocino County’s Emergency Notification and Alert System (known as “ENS” or “reverse 911”).

You can also join the fire department, and not just as a firefighter. The ambulance crew includes diverse people of all ages, and always warmly welcomes new members to the team. So consider becoming an EMT or a driver and seeing those medical emergencies from the inside!

Finally, if you meet any AV firefighters, let them know what their volunteer work means to you and your loved ones. They have a pretty good idea, because they live here, too. But it never hurts to hear it from you.

(photos by Kate McEwen)

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