Over the past two weeks, as the King fire raced through dry Sierra forestland before Thursday’s rain, fire crews had no trouble finding enough water to battle the blaze, although they have had to get creative to access some lakes and reservoirs that have shrunk during the state’s severe drought.
The fire fanned out in an area with a relatively large number of reservoirs that store water and generate power for residents of the Sacramento region. Although depleted, the reservoirs still hold enough water to serve firefighting operations.
“Water hasn’t been an issue,” said Capt. Sean Norman of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “But it’s been a challenge to get to it in some instances.”
For example, he said, under normal conditions fire engines and water tanker trucks typically are able to draw water directly from a lake using their onboard pumps and a hose.
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But because many lakes and reservoirs are so depleted during this drought year, vehicles can’t get close enough to the water, or the exposed banks of a lake bed are too steep. So fire crews have used portable pumps, hand-carried to the water’s edge, to move the water up to trucks.
Norman said many creeks are too dry to serve as a water supply. Even if a creek contains water, it may be too shallow to serve a helicopter crew trying to fill its hanging bucket. The buckets, which typically hold 300 gallons, require water at least 6 feet deep, said Scott McLean, a Cal Fire battalion chief who also is working the fire. In other cases, helicopter crews have modified their equipment to reach water in steep canyons that would otherwise be inaccessible.
“It’s harder to get the buckets in them; that’s why you see longer cables on some of the helicopters,” McLean said. “We have the ability to get to pretty much any body of water. We are very creative at times.”
However, for the first time ever, Cal Fire crews are documenting all the water they collect. Every crew is sent into the field with a form to note where they gathered water and how much. The agency intends to reimburse property owners for lost water or replace it after the fire, if necessary. The practice was adopted by Cal Fire this spring – specifically because of the drought.
For example, Norman said, fire crews may collect water from a cattle pond. But a rancher may depend on that water supply to keep his animals alive.
“We have discussed how this was an unprecedented (drought) event and that water usage was going to become critical,” he said. “If there’s a negative impact on the community, we can account for how much water we’ve used.”
Crews are also using different firefighting tactics, when appropriate, to conserve water. They can, for example, set a backfire to clear vegetation out of the fire’s path instead of using water to fight the fire directly. They also are using a firefighting foam in mop-up operations instead of water in some cases. The foam can be used, for instance, to smother a smoldering log. Foam still uses water, but far less than flooding the log with water.
Area water agencies have been cooperating to ensure fire crews have access to water, including the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, El Dorado Irrigation District and Placer County Water Agency. Between them, the agencies own dozens of reservoirs, large and small, that have helped supply crews with water.
Placer County Water Agency, for example, owns the powerhouse at French Meadows Reservoir. The powerhouse is out of commission because a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power line was damaged by the fire, said Einar Maisch, director of strategic affairs for the water agency. Still, fire crews were able to draw from a water storage tank to refill their trucks, but the tank did not refill on its own because the powerhouse was out of commission.
“We went out and re-energized the pump with a backup generator ... so they could continue to fill their tanks,” Maisch said.
Maisch and representatives of other water agencies said they are not concerned about the amount of water lost to battle the fire.
“The amount of water they use for firefighting is insignificant,” Maisch said.
Portable water tanks are another tool used by fire crews. The tanks, similar to an inflatable swimming pool, hold as much as 5,000 gallons and allow a ready supply of water to be stationed conveniently to refill fire engines, which typically carry a 500-gallon water tank.
The portable tanks are refilled by water-tender trucks, which usually hold 3,500 gallons and operate around the clock to keep the tanks full. In some cases, due to the drought, they must travel long distances to refill and return to the portable tank. As a result, fire officials have employed additional trucks to ensure the portable tank is always full. The same is done, when necessary, with helicopters.
“We fill that void with more equipment,” McLean said.
The need for water for firefighting operations will continue for some time, despite the welcome rainfall. On Thursday, the King fire had burned just over 95,000 acres and was 55 percent contained. Even after full containment, lots of water will be needed for mop-up operations and extinguishing hot spots.
The National Weather Service on Thursday afternoon issued a flash-flood warning for the King fire burn area. But fire officials said they were unaware of any floods or mudslides so far.
“There’s always that risk of soil erosion and getting mudslides and things of that nature,” Norman said. “At the same time, that rain really does help us. It will stop the fire from moving and help reinforce the work we’ve already done. It will not put the fire out. That fire will still need to be worked for at least another seven days, if not longer.”