Martis Fire Remembered
One year ago last Saturday, Morgan C. Cooper and Christopher A. Austin awoke in the wee hours of the morning on June 16, 2001 to the smell of smoke and the crackling sounds of a restless camp fire that had jumped its rock ring boundary in their Juniper Hills area camp.
According to a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection investigation, the two18-year olds leapt up and began stomping on the fire that had quickly spread more than 10 feet in two directions outside of the fire’s pit.
Cooper and Austin spent the next two hours trying to extinguish the fire with a hatchet, a blanket and some water before packing up and leaving the area sometime between 6 and 7 a.m. They thought they had successfully extinguished the fire, but still returned later that day after fire crews left the area.
Shortly after the two men left their campsite, the California Department of Forestry responded to a report of smoke in the area. Upon arrival they found a 30’by 30′ foot spot of slash they suppressed with an 18-inch wide hand line and approximately 2,600 gallons of water.
The incident would later be dubbed the Juniper Fire, and some four hours after first responding, CDF left the scene.
But the seeds of the Martis Fire had been planted, and more than 14,000 acres and $18 million later, fire crews were still mopping up the hot spots of one of the fiercest blazes the Truckee River Canyon has ever seen.
Low snow, high danger
Human error was, however, only the spark that created the Martis inferno.
“It was the driest I’ve ever seen this area in June,” Truckee Fire Protection District Chief Mike Terwilliger recollected earlier this week. “The Truckee Meadows was as dry as it had ever been in over 120 years.”
According to Western Regional Climate Center records, the winter of 2000-2001 in Reno was the driest in 129 years and the following May was the hottest since 1888.
The central Sierra received roughly half of its average annual precipitation from October 2000 to September 2001.
So, while the winds were light on Sunday, June 17, the forest was dangerously dry.
“The Martis Fire was a fuels-driven fire, but once it got into the canyons, it created its own winds,” Terwilliger noted. “But the trees were so dry, it didn’t need any wind to get started.”
The fire raced along the southern and eastern walls of the Truckee River Canyon from Juniper Hills toward Floriston at a pace that even experienced firefighters said they had never seen.
While suppressing, The Martis Fire took 3,200 firefighters a week and a half, most of the damage was done in a matter of hours.
One CDF “Hot Shot” crew member said that shortly after his troop was dropped down on the Truckee River on Sunday afternoon, he witnessed one large ember turn into a two-acre blaze in just over a minute.
The Martis Fire was first reported in the morning of June 17, and by the afternoon firefighters were fighting to save Floriston, some even sitting on roofs of the homes in the town some four miles away from where the fire first started.
The blaze consumed approximately 12,000 acres in its first six or seven hours. In addition to the scorched earth, the toll included a cabin, a mobile home, three vehicles and the closure of Interstate 80.
Floriston, however, was saved.
The fire stopped in the upper reaches of Bronco and Grey canyons only because the trees above 8,000 feet had a higher moisture content.
“A lot of people don’t know that. But [the fire] just quit up there. Plus, it hit different stands of trees. There are a lot of aspen groves up there,” Terwilliger noted.
Never a threat to Truckee
From the beginning, Terwilliger was quick to point out that the fire never threatened Truckee.
“The fires that start on the Sierra Crest always burn towards Nevada. If I thought it was a threat to Truckee, I would have had 50 engines in Glenshire,” he said.
The Martis Fire started just east of Truckee, virtually right on the town limits boundary off Martis Peak Road.
At its peak intensity, it was considered a real threat to Reno and communities in the foothills west of the city.
Because of where it started and the fact that it was primarily a wild land fire, CDF was the lead agency.
Of the 14,000 plus acres that where burnt, approximately 60 percent of the land was in national forests, most of which was in the Carson Ranger District.
As bad as the damage was to the forest and the wildlife, many felt it could have been much worse had the timing or location of the fire been different.
“You want to see a fire move into wilderness areas instead of towards homes,” Terwilliger said. “But if it had been August, it would have burned all the way to Reno.”
Two fires, or one?
Eventually, Cooper, of Truckee and Austin, of Hirschdale, were each charged with two misdemeanor counts for maintaining a campfire without a permit and leaving the fire unattended.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection submitted a declaration in support of the Nevada County District Attorney’s complaint against Cooper and Austin.
In March, both men entered no-contest pleas on the first charge and the second charge was dropped.
Cooper and Austin were sentenced to three years probation, a 15-day work release program and 150 hours of community service. They were fined $370.
Still, some questioned CDF’s actions, including the frequency and timing of checking on the Juniper Fire.
In a statement released shortly after the Martis Fire started, amid swirling rumors that the fire actually started on Saturday, June 16, CDF officials said the actions taken by agency firefighters were “consistent with training and policy.”
CDF’s subsequent investigation concluded that the agency was not at fault.
But last fall, CDF Deputy Director for Fire Protection Glen Newman did acknowledge that CDF crews didn’t adequately recheck the Juniper Fire, making sure that it remained out.
“The (CDF fire) station crew (in Truckee) was going out” to check on the fire Sunday morning, Newman told the Sacramento Bee. But a CDF battalion chief, “who
was new to the area, wanted to go with them. So he asked them to wait until he got there.
“Then he got delayed, and the crew didn’t get out there. And then the winds came up,” Newman said.
The agency’s report on the incident concluded that the Martis Fire started when “smoldering material within the 60′ by 60′ Juniper Fire crept through organic material remaining within an eight foot section of the containment line, resulting in the Martis Fire.”
Regardless, the conclusion of the report didn’t stop some from pursuing possible civil litigation.
Last November, a Truckee resident took the first step in a lawsuit against CDF and the Truckee Fire Protection District for damages suffered from the Martis Fire.
Katherine M. Anglin filed a claim with the State Board of Control for damages including “irreplaceable personal possessions, vehicles, habitable structures and loss of lease income.”
The claim alleges that the damages suffered by Anglin resulted from the failure of employees from both CDF and the Truckee Fire Protection District to meet fire standards that require a known fire to be “double-checked and triple-checked…to assure it [does] not reignite.”
Because CDF is a state agency, the claim first went to the State Board of Control, which had six months to uphold or deny the claim.
A decision was due last month, but CDF counsel was unsure about the status of the claim.
“There has not been a lawsuit filed to my knowledge,” said CDF counsel Norm Hill.
Anglin’s lawyer, Truckee attorney Robert Cohune, did not return phone calls to his office.
The board of the Truckee Fire Protection District rejected Anglin’s claim, and Chief Terwilliger has repeatedly pointed out the district was not the lead agency, arguing that it was not its responsibility to recheck the Juniper Fire.
Up to this point much of the rehabilitation on the canyon has focused on stabilizing the soil on the slopes. Those efforts got a big shot in the arm from Truckee River Day volunteers.
Hundreds of volunteers worked with the United States Forest Service and the California Department of Fish and Game to jump start both the restoration of the land and the species that inhabit the area.
Efforts have included the re-seeding of the area with native grasses, planting mountain mahogany and even building nest boxes for wood ducks.
The fire also precipitated the purchased of a new message system for Tahoe Truckee Community Television.
During the fire, the station, also known as Channel 6, aired a handful of live shows from town hall that included updates from officials of the various fire agencies that were fighting the blaze. It also ran continuous scrolling updates.
Still, some officials realized during the fire that their ability to get pertinent information out in timely manner was limited.
As a result, several agencies, including the Truckee Fire Protection District and the Town of Truckee, are pitching in to buy a new presentation system that will allow them to access the channel and put information up on the screen from a computer.
“We want to make it the primary notification system,” Terwilliger said.
“If someone sees something weird going on, we want them to tune into Channel 6.
As far as the fire itself, Terwilliger speaks for many when he says its time to learn from the mistakes that were made.
“It’s behind us and we are moving on,” he said.
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The Truckee Town Council has unanimously approved of a pilot program to remove snow on privately maintained paved trails in the area.