Some local crews fighting Western fires

Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

But fire officials also watch local conditions

Every year, local fire crews dispatch across the country to fight the fires that grab national headlines.

After several days of being staged in Angeles National Forest in northern Los Angeles County due to high fire danger conditions, the Smith River Hotshots thought they were headed home to Gasquet.

"They're en route to come back but I believe they'll be snatched up to go to the northern Rockies before they get back," said Mike Frederick, Smith River Division Chief of Six Rivers National Forest, on Thursday.

It was less than 24 hours before the Smith River Hotshots were redirected to the 1,200-acre Dale fire east of Redding.

"That's the life of those hotshots crews; very busy; away from home a

lot," said Robert Rivelle, Six Rivers forest prevention officer.

"They're an in-demand resource, not only locally but throughout the


Although the Smith River Hotshots are based in Del Norte County and

conduct tasks locally like controlled burns, during fire season they

follow the flames all over the West.

"I sign their pay sheets and we all work together, but during fire season they are a national resource," Frederick said.

The 112 hotshot crews in the nation generally work on the hottest and

most inaccessible portions of a wildfire. If wildland firefighting was

likened to the military, hotshots would be like the Army Rangers,

Frederick said. The Smith River hand crew (no fire engine) was

certified as the first hotshot crew in Del Norte County in 2009.

The Smith River Division also lent its fire engine to the Six Rivers

National Forest strike team, which is fighting the 10,133-acre Weber

wildfire in the southwestern corner of Colorado near Mancos. The strike

team has five fire engines from different districts of Six Rivers with

five firefighters per engine.

A Redwood National and State Parks fire engine and crew was also

deployed to the Weber fire in Colorado, and is now going to fight a

wildfire in Wyoming.

The Six Rivers water tender from the Mad River district is fighting the 248,600-acre Ash Creek fire in southeastern Montana.

But even when local fire resources are dispersed to big fires, the

Forest Service always tries to keep at least one engine available at

each district office in case of a new fire. For instance, one of the

Gasquet engines is with the strike team, but the other is staying home.

For Del Norte and the surrounding region, fire danger will peak

around early-September, but throughout the hot, dry summer "we're moving

toward more fire danger every week," Rivelle said.

The Forest Service is predicting that "super-fires" like the Waldo

Canyon fire that claimed two lives and burned 350 homes near Colorado

Springs, Colo., are almost inevitable for Northern California.

This year's difficult fire conditions are from warmer temperatures

and drier winters, according to Malcolm North, plant ecologist with the

Pacific Southwest Research Station of the Forest Service.

"What we're seeing now is that snow reserves are less in the Sierras and runoff is happening earlier in the year," he said.

There is a trend of longer fire seasons nowadays and the fires have been bigger.

The largest fire years since 1950 have all occurred since 2000,

according to a recent Forest Service report on California wildfires. The

annual average of acres burned since 2000 is twice the average for

fires that happened from 1950 to 2000.

A light winter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains this year is cause for alarm, meaning our local crews will stay busy.

"Fire is an inherent part of the system. You can never exclude it.

You can suppress it and keep it from happening for a while, but

eventually all of these systems will burn. Every homeowner and

policymaker needs to know that," North said.

Although there are no fire restrictions in Six Rivers right now and

the fire danger is not as strong in Del Norte as it is further inland,

fire safety is still very important as 10 to 15 percent of wildfires in

Northern California are started by humans.

The Forest Service recommended a few things that people should remember during fire season:

andbull; Get a free permit from the Forest Service for any and all campfires

on national and state lands. Read the fire safety information on the


andbull; If you have a fire, carry a shovel and water. Don't leave fires until they are cool to the touch.

andbull; Create a 100-foot diameter area of defensible space around your

home. Clearing an area of 30 feet immediately surrounding your home is

critical. The remaining 70 feet should be a mosaic of plants spaced far

enough apart that fire cannot jump from one plant to another.

andbull; Remove all buildandndash;up of needles and leaves from your roof and

gutters. Keep tree limbs trimmed at least 10 feet from any chimneys and

remove dead limbs that hang over your home or garage.

andbull; For debris burning, make sure you have a valid permit from Cal-Fire and burn on the designated days.

Joining your local fire safety council is another good way to be

productive and help out even if you live on the coast, Rivelle said.

For more information on fire safety, visit or

For local fire conditions and restrictions, call the Gasquet Ranger District office at 707-457-3131.

Speaking of summer safety, Frederick would like to remind the public

to practice water safety in the cold waters of the Smith River. Alcohol

and rivers don't mix.

"We end up dragging a body or three out of the Smith River every summer," Frederick said.

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

Reach Adam Spencer at .

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