Worst fire season in decades scorches West; former Truckee firefighter injured in line of duty
Unbearable heat, thick smoke, incredible thirst, long days. Sometimes no relief for 48 hours. It’s what our firefighters experience while fighting on the fire line. Adrenaline is the fuel that keeps them going. But it can be dangerous.
It’s especially dangerous when hot dry weather plagues a region, as it has in the West this summer. Extreme fire danger conditions in our region have even prompted the U.S. Forest Service to place fire restrictions on the Tahoe National Forest.
Local firefighting crews are facing the realities of an extremely dangerous fire season with news last week that their former colleague, CDF Fire Apparatus Engineer Andrew Schneller, was injured while fighting the Pechanga Fire in Riverside County on Aug. 2.
Schneller, who served in the Truckee CDF battalion for four years until 1997, was seriously burned while performing structure protection near Temecula, Calif., with an engine crew out of the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit.
Sudden erratic winds occurred when a thunderstorm cell passed over the fire, causing flames to spread rapidly in several directions. The fire overran the engine and crew, causing burn injuries to the firefighters and damaging the engine, according to CDF Information Officer Karen Terrill.
Schneller received second degree burns over 22 percent of his body, including his face, neck and back. He was listed in serious condition and was hospitalized for five days.
“He was a very experienced fireman and he contributed a lot to this community,” said CDF Fire Capt. Dean Levonian. “It makes you realize that if it can happen to Andy it can happen to anyone because he was so experienced.”
Levonian said the injuries really hit home for a lot of CDF firefighters.
“That’s what is so scary for us about it,” he said. “When it happens to someone with Andy’s experience level, I have a feeling when we see that investigation we will say, ‘wow, we would have done the same thing.’ It’s been a real heads-up for everyone here to stay on their toes and realize that we all need to be watching each other’s backs. We know it’s a dangerous profession, but when something like this happens close to home, it brings us back to reality and it lets us know this could happen to any one of us.”
Schneller was expected to return home to his family yesterday.
With 65 active fires burning in the United States as of Monday, resources are stretched thin and firefighters have little chance for reprieve.
Noted as the worst fire season in 50 years, some fire officials claim 2000 will now be a reference point in terms of fire severity.
U.S. Army and Marine battalions are being trained by firefighters to assist in fighting fires burning nearly 4 million acres nationwide, mostly in the West.
In California alone, more than 11 fires are burning -the largest fire currently burning in the state is the Manter fire in the Sequoia National Forest, which has burned more than 70,000 acres and was reported by fire officials to be 90 percent contained as of Wednesday. Eight homes were destroyed in that fire. The Pechanga fire was reported to be 65 percent contained Wednesday.
Four local U.S. Forest Service firefighters are currently in Boise, Idaho, at the National Interagency Fire Center helping to train military personnel for ground firefighting efforts.
Locally, all firefighting agencies meet weekly and sometimes daily to prepare as needed for dry lightning storms, discuss what resources are available and make plans of action for various situations.
“There’s a constant communication between the different agencies,” Levonian said. “We’re all counting on each other for assistance and that communication is really important.”
The hot and dry conditions throughout California have prompted U.S. Forest Service officials to issue fire restrictions effective Monday in the Tahoe National Forest. Under these restrictions, campfires are limited to designated areas, smoking is permitted only inside closed vehicles or on a developed recreation site and operation of internal-combustion engines is allowed only on certain trails.
Portable stoves, including those that use gas, jellied petroleum or pressurized liquid fuel, are only permitted in the backcountry with a valid campfire permit.
The personal woodcutting program will be shut down and no woodcutting will be permitted until the restrictions are lifted.
“We strongly urge everyone to be fire safe at this time,” Pete Brost, U.S. Forest Service public service officer, said. “Forest fuels are extremely dry, firefighters and equipment are stretched thin throughout the West and weather patterns continue hot and dry. This is not the time for carelessness and extra precautions need to be taken.”
Forest Service officials will be cracking down on the fire restrictions.
“In the Truckee area we are particularly concerned with abandoned campfires,” Kathy Murphy, fuels management specialist for the Truckee Ranger District, said. “We have been finding five or six every weekend and the potential for catastrophic fire is high.”
Murphy said the primary problems with abandoned campfires has been in the Boca and Stampede Reservoir areas.
All firefighting agencies are repeating the same key words: defensible space.
The words are repeated by fire personnel over and over, but most people believe a wildland fire will not occur near their homes, Levonian said.
“Defensible space at least gives us more time,” he said. “We just had all of the fires down in Reno. The conditions in Truckee are identical. That’s why everyone needs to be extra fire-safe right now. Any one of the fire starts we have around here could turn into a major fire that’s running through the subdivisions.”
He added, “We are a powder keg. It’s ready to burn now. Yet we’re still seeing people dumping their barbecue ashes out before they are extinguished.”
That’s why when a small spot fire starts, all agencies locally -CDF, USFS, Truckee Fire Protection District, Donner Summit Fire Department, Northstar Fire Department and Squaw Valley Fire Department -take it very seriously and commit as many resources as possible.
“We are looking at burn conditions now in Truckee that we normally don’t see for six more weeks. We still have a big portion of fire season ahead of us,” Levonian said.
For information on Tahoe National Forest Service fire restrictions, call the Truckee Ranger District at 587-3558.
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Motorists on Interstate 80 should expect delays today as the California Department of Transportation continues work on the $2.5 million Farad rockfall project.