Critical delay: planes fought other fires as Gap blaze grew
NEVADA CITY -The Gap Fire could have been stopped in its infancy, if not for a slew of other Northern California fires that led tanker planes elsewhere, according to the first air-attack team on the scene.
“We just have more fire than resources,” pilot Ray DiLorenzo said Tuesday, as the fire grew to 2,341 acres – most of it on Tahoe National Forest in Nevada and Placer counties.
DiLorenzo flies with Russ Rogers, who coordinates tanker planes from the air for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The tankers arrived at the Emigrant Gap-area fire soon after the fire was reported 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
They saw a half-acre blaze chewing up extremely dry wildland.
Because tanker planes were at other fires, however, a crucial 45 minutes passed before the first load of retardant landed on the flames. By then, the fire had consumed 5 acres and caused several spot fires.
Rogers called it frustrating, “especially when we know we can make a difference on it,” he said during a break Tuesday at the Grass Valley Air Attack Base, next to the Nevada County Airport.
Eventually, four tanker planes were assigned to the fire, and on Monday workers filled planes with 62,000 gallons of retardant – the most in a single day since the 49er Fire in 1989, according to Dan Foss, retardant base manager.
Foss, a burly man nicknamed “The Sauce Boss” after the dark-red retardant, said 400,000 gallons of retardant had been used for the season through Tuesday. The record is 455,000 gallons, and fire season is only about half over.
Not that his crew whined.
“They’re loving the overtime,” Foss said. “It’s just like the firefighters who train for this. When fire season comes, they’re all ready to go.”
Meanwhile, crews continued fighting a series of spot fires that hopped north over Interstate 80 at Yuba Gap, near where Highway 20 meets the interstate. A spot fire can start when airborne embers are thrown ahead of the main blaze, sometimes hundreds of feet.
The quick spread of the fire early on prompted fire officials to call in a Type 1 Fire Management Team, one of about five in the state, said Bruce Hayden, a TNF fire information officer.
The 50 or so federal, state and county managers who make up the team specialize in areas like operations and finances.
Concerns about the Gap Fire have since eased, Hayden said, “but they just felt with the way this fire was going, they were going to need this higher level of expertise and training.”
Evacuations remained in effect for campgrounds, recreation areas and homes in both counties as the fire pressed northeast.
Nevada County Sheriff’s deputies revisited many evacuated areas to discourage and look for property crimes, Undersheriff John Trauner said.
Traffic delays and road closures continued a second day.
Chris Myers, a worker at Harmony Ridge Market on Highway 20, said traffic was twice as busy as usual, in stark contrast to Monday, when the highway was closed. Business picked up, too, as nearby residents avoid going into town for supplies.
“We’re a lot more busy, whereas yesterday we were almost dead,” he said.
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