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Forest Service presents Walker Fire timeline to Lassen board

The Walker Fire grew fast and quickly became the top priority fire in the country last September, recounted Plumas National Forest representatives to the Lassen County Board of Supervisors in February.

To better understand the timeline and thought process from the late summer blaze, the local supervisors requested Plumas National Forest officials present further information on when the fire started and resources expended.

“This was a very fast growing fire,” said PNF Forest Supervisor Chris Carlton during the Feb. 11 supervisors meeting. “A couple of things that led to us being able to successfully contain it were both our ability to work with our partners and keep the communication going, but also a lot of the availability of resources.”

The Walker Fire, which started Sept. 4, about 11 miles east of the Plumas County community of Taylorsville, burned more than 54,000 acres throughout the span of 22 days and destroyed two single residences and seven other structures. It also prompted the evacuations in the Genesee Valley area and Milford in Lassen County, about 70 people in total.

The total estimated cost of containment was $35.6 million, according to Plumas National Forest statistics.

During the meeting, Carlton went through the fire timeline and answered questions regarding resources and the plan for future preventions and timber salvage on the burned land.

One note Carlton made was in reference to the resources available to the department.

“Within three days this was a fire of national significance. This was the top fire in the nation. We had no issues whatsoever [getting resources]. When we needed the Type 1 team, they were there; when we needed the Type 2 team, they were there,” said Carlton. “Generally speaking, we got what we asked for. It was high priority. There was nothing we were denied or couldn’t get that would’ve changed any evolution of the fire for our response team.”

Supervisor Aaron Albaugh said it seemed there is no incentive to put out fires, so crews can get more money.

Carlton answered, saying he couldn’t speak for all fires, but said, “Our primary goal was keeping that fire out of communities, providing for firefighter and public safety, and the decisions we made were solely with that in mind. On this forest we do not make decisions about how to manage a fire based on how we get people per diem.”

There were also questions regarding aircraft on the initial days of the fire.

“On every day, the first, the fourth through the ninth, the first week, the bulk of resources on, there were tankers. They drop a whole lot of retardant, a whole lot of water,” said Carlton.

Moreover, he also detailed the amount of personnel on the fire.

On the first day there were about 247 personnel working the blaze, the second day, 515. There were about 535 people on the third day of the fire Sept. 6, and about 1,096 Sept. 9, when the PNF requested the Type 1 incident management team. The highest number of personnel on the fire was about 2,091 by Sept. 15.

Supervisors and those in attendance at the meeting also requested information on the status of cattle grazing permits in the area and a timber harvest.

Matt Jedra, Beckwourth district ranger, noted PNF is looking at a July 15 date to allow cattle grazing permits in the area. Jedra said the forest was working with the five permittees who were affected by the wildfire. However, depending on range readiness, the permits could be allowed even earlier.

Also, following an in-house environmental review, the PNF is hoping to start the timber harvest this spring.

“Right now we’re going through the NEPA analysis,” said Jedra, saying they hope to have the analysis completed in March with timber coming out in the springtime.

The timber harvest will take place on about 4,200 acres. Supervisor Jeff Hemphill questioned why it was a small amount of the total acres burned.

Jedra answered that areas had been burnt previously, with brush fields and open areas, and there was some inaccessible steep ground.

“We’re pretty confident we can get 4,200 acres of salvage out of that. I know it doesn’t seem like a lot, but out of a 60,000-acre foot print, there’s a lot of brush in there, a lot of re-burn in some areas, and areas that are just completely inaccessible,” noted Jedra.

There were also some calls for better communication for future fires.

Lassen County Office of Emergency Services Chief Silas Rojas, who took on the role after the Walker Fire, sought clarification on when the decisions were made to call for the evacuation of Milford.

Lassen County Sheriff Dean Growdon also made a note that communication between PNF and Lassen County was not great in the early days of the blaze, and said it seemed like PNF didn’t realize how ominous the fire looked from the Lassen side, with the large plume of smoke visible over the Diamond Mountain range.

Carlton noted a pre-fire season meeting between agencies and emergency personnel would be helpful to establish better communication lines for any potential future events.

Some supervisors thanked PNF representatives for coming before the board to present further information regarding the Walker Fire.

Walker Fire timeline

During the Feb. 11 Lassen County Board of Supervisors meeting, Plumas National Forest representatives presented the board with the following timeline, detailing the events of the September Walker Fire:

Sept. 4: The Walker Fire was reported in the early afternoon on the Plumas National Forest, approximately 11 miles east of the community of Taylorsville. An investigator is ordered to determine cause. Twenty minutes into the fire, air attack reports the fire has potential for 100 or more acres and is burning in steep forested terrain with structures threatened.

The strategy is full suppression, going direct wherever possible. A vast amount of air and ground resources are ordered. The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning for thunderstorms, and by late afternoon the Reno Weather Service reports that, in addition to thunderstorms, the fire is also creating its own weather. There is widespread lighting in Northern California from thunderstorms.

The smoke column collapses in early evening creating downdrafts of air, which spread fire in multiple directions causing fire control issues. Firefighters are temporarily pulled off the line for their own safety. Multiple mandatory evacuations in eastern Genesee Valley are ordered.

Early Sept. 5: The fire is now 850 acres. There is heavy competition for initial attack resources as there are 61 other fires going in Northern California on seven national forests. A Type 2 California Interagency Incident Management Team is ordered.

As winds pick up in the afternoon, the fire begins to build and multiple spots become well established as winds gust to 30 mph. The column is starting to turn, and firefighters are temporarily pulled off the line for their own safety. Additional mandatory evacuations are ordered to the north of the fire.

Sept. 6: The Type 2 CIIMT takes command of the Walker Fire early in the morning. Continued widespread lightning (561 strikes in a 24 hour period) has increased the number of fires in Northern California to 124 (roughly half state and half federal) resulting in continued heavy competition for localized initial attack firefighting resources.

Extremely strong winds, low relative humidity, steep intersecting drainages and continuous fuel beds have aligned and are contributing to rapid fire growth today and over the next several days.

Sept. 7: In the early morning, fire officials discuss the potential for fire growth with the Lassen Modoc Unit (cal Fire) chief. Mid-day, the Lassen County OES Coordinator and fire officials establish a management action point (commonly called a trigger point) at Last Chance Creek, at which time the OES coordinator would work with the Lassen County Sheriff to identify needed evacuations.

The fire continues to burn to the east/northeast throughout the day, and day-shift resources leaving the line report the fire may be getting close to the management action point. The Cal Fire unit chief confirms fire situation and discusses possible resource additions. The fire is now a fire of “national significance” and a Type 1 CIIMT is ordered.

Just after 9 p.m., night watch confirms the fire has burned to the management action point (Last Chance Creek) for assessing evacuations of Milford and Janesville. The Lassen County OES Coordinator is notified. Details of timing and evacuation locations are then discussed by the OES Coordinator and Lassen County Sheriff in concert with fire officials who are providing fire progression information.

The CalFire unit chief works with team operations to assist with adding resources on the east/northeast side of the fire.

Just before 10 p.m., fire night operations report winds and fire behavior are beginning to subside and progress is being made on anchor and flanking activities on the new fire growth to the east/northeast. Forward progression of the fire has been stopped. Just before midnight, evacuation calls are made. (This topic was discussed during the Feb. 11 meeting. California OES Coordinator Silas Rojas questioned why the evacuation was called if the forward progression had been stopped. Forest manager Chris Carlton noted, although forward progression stopped, it still had the potential to grow. In one day, the fire had grown by about seven to eight miles.)

Early Sept. 8: The Type 1 Team takes command of the fire, which is now 43,931 acres and is only 7 percent contained. Concurrently, Milford residents are evacuated.

After Sept. 9: Fire growth slows dramatically with improved weather conditions, and additional resources and firefighters steadily reinforce lines and increase containment on the fire.

Sept. 16: Approximately one inch of rain has fallen over the fire area, and containment has increased to 95 percent.

Twenty-two days after ignition, Sept. 25: The Walker Fire is 100 percent contained. The fire has burned 54,608 acres, and has burned two small residences and seven other structures.

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