Stevens Fire - Colfax, California
August 8, 2004
By: Steve Finnegan
For the second consecutive year, SFFD and the Presidio Fire Department participated in Wildland 2004 live burn exercises at Camp Parks Military Base in Dublin, CA. On June 26th and 27th, 2004 over 60 firefighters and officers from SFFD as well as firefighters from the other Bay Area counties participated in this year’s live burn training which included progressive hose lays, mobile attack, hand line construction, and fire line safety. Firefighters were able to observe first hand how wind, humidity, and slope affect fire behavior in light flashy fuels common to Camp Parks and many areas in California. Live fire training at Camp Parks, state mandated courses S-130, S-131, and S-190, battalion based training, and lessons learned from the Southern California fires last summer were helpful to the crew of SFFD’s OES engine 248 which included Lt. Ron Lewin (Engine 7), FF/PM Rita Kerns (Engine 7), FF Steve Finnegan (Engine 37), and FF John Manning (Engine 43) as they left for a wildland fire threatening structures in the Sierra foothills in the beginning of August.

The evening of August 8, 2004 engine 248 left for the “Stevens Fire” in Colfax, CA off highway 80 East of Auburn as part of an immediate need OES Task Force (T/F 2803-A) including 248, water tender 22 from Contra Costa Fire, engine 288 from Pacifica, engine 290 from Moraga/Orinda, and engine 300 from El Cerrito. On August 9, T/F 2803-A was assigned to Branch III as part of the Cape Horn Structure protection group above the North Fork of the American Canyon. Morning briefing reminded crews to be aware of unburned areas of the fire (islands), snags or dead trees, steep terrain, and to maintain overall situational awareness. (LACES) The temperature was close to 100 degrees F with a minimum humidity of 10-14%. Winds were 3-8 mph with afternoon gusts predicted to 15 mph.

Around 11 am T/F 2803A left the Norton Grade staging area to relieve a night shift strike team on Sawmill Rd. that had just saved a house when the fire had made a run up a steep side canyon (chimney) and destroyed a nearby house with poor defensible space. After backing the engine into position for structure protection at the end of Sawmill Rd., the crew of 248 deployed two 1-1/2 inch hose leads and initiated fire suppression operations around the property. A water supply from water tender 22 was secured and a 1-3/4 line with a fog nozzle was placed next to 248 for engine protection. Engine 288 supplied a hose lay which the previous strike team had left in place and began mop up while engine 290 and 300 assisted CDF crews in a nearby area.

The homeowner of the protected residence on Sawmill Rd. had prepared the structure by clearing vegetation around the property beyond the 30 feet minimum clearance required. He had also limbed tree branches below and adjacent to the house and reduced other flammable vegetation, which can act as ladder fuel spreading surface fires into aerial fuels. The rain gutters were clear of dry leaves and pine needles, and the property had an additional 7000 gallons of water in the swimming pool that was being used to refill water tender 22 with a flotopump.

Around 14:15 up canyon winds began to shift toward a small chimney below and west of the Sawmill residence and predicted afternoon wind gusts began to increase. The high temperature (100F) and low humidity (13%) led to increased fire activity as the unburned fuel began to ignite in the drainage. Strike team leader Clayton Jolley, D/C of operations from Half Moon Bay, informed crews of the developing flare up. The fire was now building in intensity and rate of spread and was quickly moving toward the protected structure. The crew of 248 rapidly redeployed their hose leads between the approaching fire, the house being protected, and engine 248. As heat and smoke continued to build, Lt. Lewin, FF/PM Kearns, FF Finnegan, Jim Selvitella, assistant strike team leader from South San Francisco Fire, and the crew of water tender 22 were able to directly attack the flames which were now torching pines trees near our position and threatening the protected structure. As the water tender continued to supply engine 248, pump operator Manning, despite being exposed to increasing heat and smoke, was able to maintain adequate pump pressure enabling the crew of 248 to aggressively attack the fire, defend the structure, and protect engine 248 and operator Manning.

As the smoke cleared, crews realized a structure to the west had been destroyed. It had poor access, little or no defensible space, and was located in a drainage or chimney. A pick up truck in the driveway was also lost and an outbuilding caught fire which crews quickly extinguished. Other lessons learned which Chief Jolley discusses in a post fire analysis reiterates to stay cognizant of fire weather and topography; to stay in communication with all elements of the Strike Team; to not get distracted by media or homeowners; and to be careful of “dirty burned” areas where some fuel remains in burned areas. Crews were reminded that the saved structure on Sawmill Rd. had defensible space and that the structure was readily available as a safety zone while the two structures nearby burned by the fire were “losers” with poor access and no defensible space. Crews also realized how quickly situations can develop, and the speed at which fire can move out of a chimney and up steep slopes. This reminds homeowners how important fire prevention is if they want their house to have a chance at surviving a wildfire and how important it is for firefighters to triage structures to distinguish between defendable winners and un-defendable losers in the urban interface environment.


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