Tuesday, September 3, 2013

OES 305 at the Rim Fire with Strike Team 6840A

Yosemite National Park-
Stanislaus National Forest-

On the morning of Friday,August 23, 2013, rumors swirled about the Lakeside fire stations that orders would soon be received that would send OES 305 northward to the massive Rim Fire burning west of Yosemite National Park in the Stanislaus National Forest. This fire had started off of the Rim Overlook on Highway 120 on August 17th, and since that date the fire had essentially been doubling in size every day. With few available fire resources left in Northern California, the request for more engines slowly worked its way down California. When engines left Riverside County, we knew it was only a matter of time.

At 5:15 p.m. on August 23,2013, word was passed down that OES 305 was assigned to Strike Team 6840-A.  We would be heading north as an "immediate need" strike team with other OES engines from Chula Vista, Poway, Rancho Santa Fe, and Vista. The strike team would be led by Division Chief Hitchcock from the City of Poway and Strike Team Trainee, Battalion Chief Rich Brocchini from the City of Chula Vista.  It would take the strike team 13 hours to wind its way north to base camp southeast of Sonora. After a trip that long base camp came as a welcome sight.

The crew from OES Engine 305 stock up in anticipation of an assignment.
Base Camp, home for the next 12 days.
The next morning it became evident what a massive firefighting effort this had been. The base camp had been overrun by fire on two different occasions. Taking this in stride, a representative from PG&E conveyed the story how everyone in base camp moved to the center of a clearing until fire crews could stop the flames. Base camps rarely have this type of occurrence, but to have this occur on two occasions is extremely rare.

Scars of the Rim Fire just below base camp.
A forest lost when the fire came out of the Tuolumne River gorge towards Cherry Lake Rd.
That afternoon we received word that we would be assigned to a particularly sensitive infrastructure site. We were assigned night operations at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. This reservoir provides drinking water to over 2 million San Franciscans and provides power generation. In addition, there are a number of historically significant cabins on this site. The Hetch Hetchy lake was created with the completion of the O'Shaughnessy Dam in 1923. The entire project was a water works program in response to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Hetch Hetchy prior to the fire arriving in the area.
The O'Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy
One of many cabins located in the Hetch Hetchy area.
Prior to our arrival, a strike team from Fresno County had been assigned there on day shift. They had evaluated the structures and increased the defensible space with the assistance of a hand crew. For the night shift, engines were assigned patrol and lookout duties. With the fire working its way up the Tuolumne River, nobody wanted to be caught off guard so crews kept a vigilant watch on the approaching fire front. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and the fire never made it to our area; however, we all knew it was more of a question of "when" it would get there. Burning in heavy timber in impossible terrain makes control elusive at best.

The Rim Fire burns towards our location on the first day.
The next morning the fire had established itself on the ridge above Hetch Hetchy.
Getting to our assignment meant navigating a narrow road with a 1000' vertical drop to the Tuolumne River on one side.
On the second day of the fire, the perimeter had basically surrounded the lake and had burned along the road that we had used for access. With one-hundred foot trees burning on both sides of the road, concern that the strike team could be cut-off by falling snags had to be factored. Contingency plans were made should the strike team be isolated and lose access to food and supplies. There was also the concern about the fire hitting the area without the assistance of additional help. By morning the fire had continued to burn around the lake. A spot fire had established itself on the ridge above the cabins and concerned firefighters that the fire was well established on three sides. Fortunately, the road access held and the Fresno County strike team arrived to relieve us.

A spot fire gets established on the ridge above Hetch Hetchy. This spot fire would soon become a factor.
Upon departing our assignment that day, crews came across a mother bear and her cub wandering aimlessly down the roadway. Obviously driven from her home by the approaching fire, the impact on wildlife is driven home with scenes like this.  Driven back into the hills by the approaching engines we can only hope that these beautiful animals escaped the fire unharmed.

Life in a base camp becomes more like a series of automated motions. Food, shower, sleep, and restock all became a routine. Crews could come get a hot meal that wasn't served in a brown bag. You could wash the prior days dirt off in hot showers in the incident base. And you could now settle down for some much needed rest.

The incident base and engine staging was at two different locations. Crews navigated down a path between the two locations. 
Crews line-up for dinner. 
Because of the distance between our assignment and the base camp, the decision was made to change our work shift from 12 hours to 24 hours. This was a welcomed change as we would only need to make the 90 minute drive every other day allowing us more time to rehab between shifts. Upon being released from a division assignment, sleep takes a backseat to getting the engine prepared for another day on the line. Only after the rig has been fueled, supplies for the next day are retrieved, and broken equipment replaced, can the crew consider food and sleep.

After your meal comes the all too popular game of "find the cell phone signal." For some reason these elusive hot-spots tend to wander around basecamp on their own. Finding these spots is considerably easier; just look for a crowd of firefighters holding their phones at arm’s length in a ten-foot square. While often mistaken as a mystic "fire dance," it's only us trying to talk to home. The ability to talk back to home is a big morale booster as our families continue with their activities in our absence.

The average day starts at 4:30 a.m. when crews scurry to get a hot meal and prepare the engine for the next 24 hour assignment. The strike team leaders are briefed at 6:00 a.m. on where the operational assignments are issued. There is an expectation that crews are ready to roll after that meeting, There is little tolerance for crews that are not ready to roll so every effort is made not to be "that" crew. After a short briefing, crews are on the road to their assignments. This can make for an interesting sight when multiple strike teams attempt to leave base camp on a single dirt road.

We would return to Hetch Hetchy as the fire continued to close in on the area. The spot fire that had established itself on the ridge above the cabins had now grown significantly and was threatening the area as it back-burned back through the canyon. A second OES strike team from Placer County had been assigned to the area to provide better coverage of the multiple dwellings. But we had been lucky deep in the canyon. The high winds that had been plaguing the fire in the high country never surfaced in the canyon.

The fire starts its downward spread towards our location.
The once small spot fire burns from the east towards Hetch Hetchy.
The changing scenery as crews now have fire on all sides of their location.
Fire burns on both sides of the Tuolumne River to the west of our location.
While on evening watch, we could see from our lookout that the fire had crossed the Tuolumne River and was now burning on the south wall of the canyon. This could eventually create a problem in our location The strike team had pre-located safety zones should the fire overrun our position. Fortunately a persistent inversion layer returned and slowed the fire activity. We had been fortunate for today.

We continued to return to Hetch Hetchy for the first week. This area created a unique challenge for fire managers. The terrain and proximity to the reservoir did not make it a good area to conduct burning operations, so the fire was allowed to take its own course. By day seven, we basically had fire completely around our location. The sound of trees falling broke the silence every few minutes with a sound reminiscent of thunder.  This sound would soon be followed by the sound of boulders rolling towards the camp. The fire was now well established in the Tuolumne River to our west and the fire had spotted down to the lake to the east. On the morning that we were relieved by the Fresno strike team, the fire was just outside of the perimeter of Hetch Hetchy. It's probable that the fire will continue to threaten the area requiring us to take action, but for now the fire was burning through ground clutter which was beneficial for us.

Crews from the lookout could see through the smoke building Pyrocumulus clouds near our location. These typically indicate heat pushing up through the inversion layer. They are never a welcome sight.
Lakeside firefighter Jose Corona keeps an eye on the fire from the lookout. The Lakeside crew was tasked with taking weather observations and posted as a lookout at the heliport high above Hetch Hetchy.
The fire finally reached our protection area on the afternoon of August 31st. Throughout the night, the fire made a number of intrusions through the ground fuels. Crews patrolled and extinguished fires within our area all night. On the morning of September 1st, the fire had crept-in along dead logs to ignite an area that could cause a number of trees to drop and block access. It also presented the possibility of fire spread into the cabin areas to the north. The strike team extinguished the fire and conducted overhaul of the area. We were soon released back to base camp for some much needed time off.

Lakeside Engineer Scott Smith and Firefighter Jose Corona put in a hoselay on a hot spot.
Firefighter Jose Corona overhauls an area where the fire had gotten close to the area we were assigned to protect.
Much to our surprise, upon reaching base camp we were informed that our time at the Rim Fire had come to an end. We were to start the process of demobilization that day in anticipation of departure the next morning. Demobilization comes with mixed emotions for crews. We were happy to head home to our families but we felt like the final chapter at Hetch Hetchy had not been written yet. Those duties would now fall to another strike team as we departed the Sierra foothills for Southern California.

OES Engine 305 receives a mechanical inspection to make sure it's roadworthy for the trip back to Lakeside.
Strike Teams are one of the oddest events that firefighters experience in their careers. You take 22 total strangers and task them with some of the most important assignments they will ever experience with an expectation of  results. These stories are never about the accomplishments of a single engine or crew, but are more a tale of how a group of strangers prevailed.   

Our fellow crew members:

Strike Team Trainee Rich Brocchini (Chula Vista) with Strike Team Leader Kevin Hitchcock (Poway) (left to right)
OES 315 from the Vista Fire Department. Firefighter Ray Tellechea, Engineer Jim Sawyer, Captain Robbie Ford, Firefighter Matt Ryan (left to right)
OES 307 from the Chula Vista Fire Department. Firefighter Pablo Ornelas, Firefighter Brian Clark, Engineer Matt Minehan, Captain Dan Giles, and Chief Rich Brocchini (left to right)

OES 308 from the City of Poway. Captain Steve La Corte, Firefighter Chris Withey, Engineer Jeff Cole, Firefighter DJ Schroeder, Chief Kevin Hitchcock (left to right)
OES 336 from the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District. Captain Marshall Jordan, Firefighter Grant Smith, Engineer Joe Carter, Engineer Lee Haskin (left to right)
OES 305 from the Lakeside Fire Protection District. Captain Mark Grow, Firefighter Josh Wilson, Firefighter Jose Corona, Engineer Scott Smith (left to right)

Submitted By: Fire Captain Mark Grow, Lakeside Fire Protection District
Photography By: Fire Captain Mark Grow, Lakeside Fire Protection District


  1. This is awesome. Thanks so much for sharing this. It's a must read or at least look at and read the captions under each photograph. What a story and it's beautifully written. To be shared! Thanks guys for being out there for all of us! What an experience you had. This out does any media news story. ~ P

  2. There were also many strike teams and others from all over the country to help an amazing effort from all