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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

SAN LUIS NWRC: Early Fire Season in the Central Valley

Region 8, June 12, 2013
The Fremont Fire at the San Luis NWR burning during the first night.
The Fremont Fire at the San Luis NWR burning during the first night. - Photo Credit: n/a
At dusk, a tractor was used to put in a disk line to contain the fire.
At dusk, a tractor was used to put in a disk line to contain the fire. - Photo Credit: n/a
Water from helicopter bucket drops was used for suppression in riparian areas.
Water from helicopter bucket drops was used for suppression in riparian areas. - Photo Credit: n/a
Evidence of heavy fuel consumption after the fire due to drought conditions.
Evidence of heavy fuel consumption after the fire due to drought conditions. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Madeline Yancey

Two consecutive dry springs in California’s Central Valley and bordering foothills have left the majority of wildland fuels with little moisture and primed to carry fire. Predictions were for the wildfire season to start six to eight weeks earlIier this year due to the lack of rain and high temperatures. Several small wildfires at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge and the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge had already occurred this spring and were suppressed by the fire staff stationed at the San Luis NWR Complex.

Early Sunday evening on the Memorial Day Weekend, a smoke column, wispy and gray, was reported visible from Highway 140 looking south over the northern portion of the San Luis NWR and the neighboring Grasslands State Park. A wildfire of unknown origin, with flames as high as 20 feet at times, burned about 430 acres of riparian and upland habitat in the northern portion of the San Luis NWR, in Merced County, Calif. The fire began Sunday, May 26 and continued burning through Wednesday, May 29. It is believed the fire spread to the refuge from the adjacent Fremont Ford area of the Great Valley Grasslands State Park. The original cause of the fire remains unknown.

When the smoke column was first reported Sunday evening around 5:30 p.m.; two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) fire engines and four crew members were dispatched to the site. Both engines on site were light engines – each holding 300 gallons of water. The four crew members consisted of two fire-funded staff and two refuge-funded collateral staff. Fire-funded staff have primary responsibilities for the Complex’s fire program which consists of suppressing local wildfires, fuels projects, and supporting larger fire suppression efforts in the region.

Collateral firefighters at the Complex are staff trained in fire duties but whose primary job is not fire-related. Because of the nature of their jobs, collateral firefighters possess intimate knowledge of the refuge’s habitat, terrain, and infrastructure. The collateral firefighters were scheduled to work fire duty that weekend due to the predicted dry and windy conditions. These two collaterals had combined experience on over 150 fires. The training and use of collateral firefighters allows the Complex to rapidly staff up during wildfires. All staff working at the Complex receive basic firefighter training even if they will not be working the fireline or staffing an engine.

The engines were joined by the Merced County Fire Battalion Chief, four Merced County Fire engines, and a water-tender. The fire was burning in the dense riparian zone of the San Joaquin River, south of Highway 140. This area is thick with willows, mugwort, and other tall vegetation as well as dry annual grasses. The dense vegetation and lack of road access prevented firefighters from being able to fully size-up the wildfire and its behavior. Contact was also made with various Complex staff to gauge any safety and resource concerns.

The prevailing northwest winds and the location of the fire on the refuge’s northwest corner put a large portion of the wildlife and habitat resources of the 26,000-acre refuge at risk. In the absence of wind, a wildfire would spread equally in all directions; however, the presence of wind influences both the direction and speed of a fire. A northwest wind causes a wildfire to spread rapidly in a southeast direction.

Riparian woodlands provide tremendous amounts of fuel to feed a wildfire in the form of dead trees and thick layers of decaying organic matter, and the annual grasslands are a fine and flashy fuel where wind-driven wildfires spread rapidly. This particular area is difficult to access because there are few roads and gates to provide passage through fence lines, so directly attacking and suppressing the fire was not considered a viable option. Direct attack involves putting out the wildfire at its head or leading edge.

Given the nature and location of the fire, impending nightfall, and predicted strong winds for the next day, it was decided to combat this fire using indirect methods – a “backburn” would be started from a fire access road to the west using that road as a line from which to hold the fire. The two Service collateral firefighters, with their knowledge of the local infrastructure, habitat, and terrain, were able to assist the team in developing a plan to quickly access the area and suggest the fire access road as the best location to ignite the backfire. They also proposed a narrow area of scant vegetation between the San Joaquin River and the fire access road as the best location for a disk line so there would be a continuous firebreak to prevent fire spread.

As dusk fell, a third collateral firefighter, who was off-duty at the time, was called in to operate a tractor equipped with a 14-foot disk to put in the disk line. In darkness with an active advancing fire, the firefighter was able to construct a firebreak in the area suggested by his colleagues. A continuous backfire was lit from the constructed firebreak to burn out the fuel between the firebreak and the advancing wildfire. Hose lines worked behind the igniters on the disk line to ensure that no fire spread on the wrong side of the line. The firing operation proceeded slowly and by 1:30 a.m. the firing operation was complete. During the firing operation the fire was being patrolled on both sides of the San Joaquin River to ensure no slop-over or spot fires occurred. The San Luis NWR Complex chain-of-command was kept abreast of events throughout the evening. Complex staff made contact with all cooperating grazing operators and other partners to ensure no livestock or equipment was near or in the potential path of the wildfire if it escaped control lines.

The backburn was successful and pinched off the fire and kept it from spreading eastward along the San Joaquin River riparian corridor. Firefighters worked throughout the night to patrol the fire lines to ensure the fire remained contained within the existing control lines. No fire escaped the control lines during the night.

A large smoke column was still visible for miles the following morning as the fire continued to burn in the interior of the fire site through the dense vegetation of the riparian woodland. Monday morning, additional Complex firefighters arrived on scene and the night crew was released for rest. Firefighters cut through a fence gaining access for the first time to this riparian area. Because access was difficult for the ground firefighting equipment (engines and water tenders), a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection helicopter was requested from the Sierra National Forest; and another Service engine was requested from the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The helicopter began making water drops into the riparian zone to impede the fire’s progress while engine crews worked to extinguish any active burning and performed mop-up in areas with potential to slop over to the east side of the River.

The wildfire was declared contained at about 4 p.m. on Tuesday, May 28, but mop-up and patrol activities continued into Friday, May 31, when it was finally declared controlled. The collaboration of the firefighting agencies and their joint pre-season planning ensured a solid working organization. The knowledge and expertise of the Complex’s collateral fire personnel were also crucial to fighting this fire. They contributed to the rapid formulation and implementation of a plan of attack. They made it possible for regular firefighting personnel to get a head-start and “hit the ground running” when they arrived on-scene. Together, they were able to keep a relatively small loss of wildlife and habitat resources from becoming a huge one. A successful collaboration of agencies prevented an early season wildfire, which consumed hundreds of acres, from possibly burning thousands of acres.

Madeline Yancey is a Pathways Student Trainee at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Los Banos, California.

 

Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov