Update: Firefighters to helicopter into Rocky wildland blaze to build containment

Cal Fire crews work on the the Rocky fire near Clearlake on Monday. By Tuesday, the fire had burned 67,000 acres after jumping Highway 20 on Monday.
Cal Fire crews work on the the Rocky fire near Clearlake on Monday. By Tuesday, the fire had burned 67,000 acres after jumping Highway 20 on Monday.

Fire officials were hopeful that mild weather will allow progress to be made Wednesday in the air-and-ground effort to stop the forward progress of the Rocky wildland blaze that has been burning for a week.

The fire, burning in Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties, has destroyed 68,300 acres. It was 20 percent contained Wednesday.

The count for the number of houses destroyed ballooned to 39 on Wednesday, compared to 24 homes thought to have been leveled by the fire the day before. The new increase was due to damage assessment teams being able to tour the fire zone and tally a more accurate total of burned residences.

The weather is expected to be in the 90s with humidity in the 20 percent range in the burn area on Wednesday. Winds are not expected to be high.

High humidity and light rain overnight were helpful in allowing firefighters working through the night to build containment, including where the fire jumped the line along Highway 20 on Monday. Bulldozers worked during the night to make a perimeter firebreak around the 1,000-acre bubble where the fire crossed Highway 20.

The big push on Wednesday will combine aerial resources with boots on the ground as firefighters take advantage of mild weather.

“There will be a pretty big air show with helicopters shuttling hand crews into areas of the fire where we have not been able to get into previously because of weather conditions or fire behavior,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Don Camp. “That is a focus today. We want to get direct line on the fire’s edge, as opposed to giving up ground because of safety concerns for the crews and equipment.”

Chris Mojica, a captain with the Columbia Fire Protection District resting at base camp, said the challenge with the Rocky fire was that it was not burning cleanly but was leaving debris and vegetation behind.

“It’s not burning all the fuels completely so there can be backburn,” Mojica said. “You don’t really know what it’s going to do.”

About 3,500 personnel were battling the fire, which threatened nearly 7,000 buildings and had resulted in evacuation orders.

At the Lake County Fairgrounds on Tuesday morning, where a makeshift command post has been set up, more than 1,000 firefighters devoured a breakfast of ham, scrambled eggs and oatmeal before deploying on a 24-hour shift. The camp, 30 miles from the blaze, is where firefighters rest, eat and pass time between shifts.

“It’s a city within a city,” said Capt. Jason Shanley of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, acting as a Cal Fire spokesman there.

The camp features hot showers, laundry facilities, bunk beds, a kitchen and even copy machines – all within portable trailers.

Cal Fire sends out requests for support to agencies across the state. Firefighters assigned to strike teams converge at one location before driving up together, Shanley said.

On their day off, firefighters are doing one of three things: eating, showering or sleeping.

At base camp, firefighters get three hot meals a day, served from a trailer staffed by inmates from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Some meals include steak, but Shanley noted it isn’t filet mignon. “It’s good, but you’re not going to get gourmet food,” he said.

Firefighters are constantly watching the amount of food they consume so they have enough energy during the long shifts. Crews going into the field are handed a sack filled with energy-rich foods. The food in each bag has roughly 10,000 calories, which is enough to last for least 24 hours.

At Lakeport, Cal Fire contracts with The Mobile Sleeper Company to provide air-conditioned semi-trailers with bunk beds. The camp has 15 trailers, with a total capacity of 630 people.

While the trailers are dark and cramped inside, each firefighter gets an individual bunk, consisting of a plastic-covered mattress and privacy curtain. Firefighters bring their own blanket, pillow or sleeping bag. A small light for reading is provided, and each bunk has its own air-conditioning vent.

Any small reminder of comfort is a welcome respite for firefighters. Crews battling wildfires must deal with the taxing demands of constantly monitoring fire activity, unlike traditional shifts at home that are driven by responding to emergencies as they unfold.

“You try to catch some rest, but one or two men still need to be awake,” said Glendale fire Capt. Tyler Richardson.

All are aware of the risks they face on the front lines. David Ruhl, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter battling a blaze in Modoc National Forest, died last week of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation, Forest Service officials announced Tuesday.

Ruhl, an engine captain with Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, was reported missing Thursday evening during an initial attack on the Frog fire. His body was found Friday, but the cause of death wasn’t released until Tuesday after the autopsy was complete.

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