In most drought years across California, early October is still the heart of the wildfire season. But major rainstorms in late September, including one that dumped 6 inches in Del Norte County in less than 24 hours, brought firefighting efforts to an early close.
“The rain this year changes everything,” said Tim DeVos, Cal Fire Battalion Chief for Humboldt-Del Norte Unit, as he stood outside the agency’s Klamath Station.
DeVos was preparing to drive 15 miles of narrow dirt logging roads to perform the seasonal closing of Red Mountain Lookout, the only fire lookout in the county that Cal Fire staffed for the entire season.
Cal Fire no longer uses lookouts at all in Southern California because of poor visibility from smog. Lookouts are rare in Northern California as well, since most wildfires are now first reported by cell phones from people living or recreating in wildland areas — not from staffed lookouts.
But in the vast timber lands of the Lower Klamath River, “no one has a good set of eyes, and cell phones don’t work,” DeVos said, hopping back in his truck after unlocking a gate to the logging road owned by Green Diamond
In 2011, when Cal Fire decided to no longer fully staff Red Mountain Lookout, it made the timber company with more than 147,000 acres of timberland in the Lower Klamath River nervous.
“Green Diamond realized most of the property Red Mountain looked over was Green Diamond land,” DeVos said.
The company, whose California operations specialize in coast redwoods, asked if it could pay to keep the lookout staffed, but Cal Fire’s “staff is too valuable for anything but staffing engines,” DeVos said.
Then a grass-roots organization, the Del Norte Fire Safe Council, stepped in to find people to staff the lookout.
This fall’s seasonal closure of Red Mountain marks the completion of the third year of a successful three-way partnership between Cal Fire, Green Diamond and the Fire Safe Council.
Green Diamond pays the council to staff the facility ($15 an hour, eight hours a day, seven days a week through fire season) and Cal Fire continues to maintain the facility.
Finding the fires
In 2011, for the entire first fire season of the partnership, Red Mountain was staffed by Dan and Sharol Leavitt, the director/ facilitator team and founders of the Del Norte Fire Safe Council. While in retirement, the elderly couple started the council in 2002 at the urging of the previous Cal Fire battalion chief.
“We were interested in defensible space since we lived in the middle of the forest,” Sharol said.
Before the partnership started, Sharol remembers making the drive to Red Mountain three times a week to staff the lookout during the 2008 Blue 2 fire that burned nearly 10,000 acres in the Blue Creek drainage, a tributary of the Lower Klamath River.
“The only thing I regret is that I didn’t find this 40 years ago,” said Dan Leavitt about manning the lookout, while looking out across Del Norte’s peaks from the observatory deck. “It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my life.”
The Leavitts light up when they describe the times they spotted fires and relayed the location to firefighting agencies. Lookout staffers are expected to scan 360 degrees of the horizon every eight minutes. Sharol remembers having two spots from Red Mountain Lookout in one day.
“There’s nothing like finding that first fire,” Sharol said from Red Mountain’s observation area.
The facility is equipped with a “fire finder,” essentially a map on a high-top table configured so that the lookout is in the center. Peaks surrounding the lookout can be identified by spinning a view finder that pivots on Red Mountain over the map until it lines up with a high peak that can be used as a landmark.
It takes some time to learn the best peaks to use to judge distance and to know how the smoke reacts.
“There are a lot of strange things you have to figure out,” Dan Leavitt said.
Mild season in DN
Luckily for Del Norte County, there were not as many fires to spot this year, especially when compared to fires in the Mid-Klamath area that burned a combined 50,000 acres. The Forks Complex burned more than 37,000 acres near communities on the Salmon River and the Corral Complex burned over 12,000 acres in the Trinity Alps Wilderness and continues to smolder within containment lines.
“For some reason, we didn’t get as many lightning strikes here as they had in that area,” said Mary Kay Vandiver, district ranger for the Gasquet Ranger District/Smith River National Recreation Area, who visited the Forks Complex twice this season.
Forest Service smoke jumpers were deployed to stomp out fire starts in the Siskiyou Wilderness Area, and Cal Fire responded to a small fire near Lake Earl started by fireworks on the Fourth of July, but nothing spread.
“We had some small fire starts this year, but we were on them,” Vandiver said. “I think it’s been really helpful that we have the staff that we do.”
By today’s standards, the fire season nationwide was fairly mild. Through September, 4,092,640 acres had burned across the country, but the 10-year average is 6,670,698 acres. The land burned this year is actually the second-smallest total acreage in the last 10 years. In 2012 alone, 8.7 million acres burned.
What made this fire season feel more severe were the tragic deaths of 30 firefighters, making it the deadliest season since 2003. In June alone, 19 firefighters died fighting the Yarnell Fire near Prescott, Ariz.
The proximity of homes near the 257,000-acre Rim Fire by Yosemite National Park has also made the fire season feel more intense to Californians.
Thinking about next fire
When wildfires do strike and spread in Del Norte, they can quickly become serious. Warm, dry winds can push them fast, said DeVos, the local battalion chief. A lower frequency of fires in Del Norte can also make it harder to instill fire prevention mindsets into the local community, he said.
For the communities surrounded by Six Rivers National Forest land, Vandiver said the district has spent a lot of time on education. The Del Norte Fire Safe Plan, created by the Fire Safe Council, has been instrumental for that outreach and for fuel reduction work in the county, she said.
A roughly 3,000-acre fuel reduction project around the at-fire-risk community of Big Flat on South Fork Smith River was pursued after being outlined in the fire safe plan. The project is more than 60 percent complete, Vandiver said. More than half of the fire prevention projects in the county’s fire safe plan have been completed.
Although they work for different agencies that have different policies on fighting fires, DeVos and Vandiver both emphasize the importance of prevention and outreach, probably because of a truism simply spelled out by Dan Leavitt:
“There’s always going to be fire if you live in Del Norte County — you can be sure of that.”