The Canyon Fire – A Midnight Success Story

This is a big story about a wildfire. A wildfire that you probably haven’t ever heard of. Very few have. You certainly haven’t seen it on CNN or even the Los Angeles TV stations. But, it could have been one of those fires. So what is so “big” about this story? Well, you be the judge.

A Midnight Wildfire Was Ignited

At approximately midnight on September 26th, 2016, the San Bernardino National Forest (SBNF) was experiencing the widely-known Santa Ana wind conditions. An area transient deliberately ignited a brush fire just adjacent to a home on Old Waterman Canyon Road in North San Bernardino, within the SBNF’s response area. 

Flames rise from the V-canyon floor and silhouette the trees

The Canyon Fire in the early morning hours of September 26, 2016. (Photo by Clayton Malcom/RimFire)

A 911 call was placed at 12:14 a.m. and US Forest Service Engine 336 was on scene in an impressive six minutes. Firefighters on Engine 336 conducted a quick size-up of the fire, determined a safe and efficient attack plan and went to work. The fire held high potential to rapidly expand due to the current weather conditions and drought stricken chaparral. Fire behavior growth models predicted that this fire could have expanded to an estimated 6,000 acres including up slope into the mountain community of Crestline. The potential for structure loss would be tremendous with values at risk in excess of five billion dollars. This fire could have easily turned into one of those large, scary, uncontrollable wildfires that displaced hundreds of residents, burned dozens of homes, inconvenienced thousands of motorists and cost millions to suppress, but it didn’t.

The Basics

The story begins with a strategically implemented 24-hour staffing schedule and the perfect location of fire station 36 that allowed the crew of Engine 336 to arrive quickly and aggressively attack the fire. San Bernardino County Fire Department Engine 227 joined the fight soon after. Together, these two engine crews knocked down the initial advance of the Canyon Fire and, with the additional arriving forces, proceeded to deprive this fire of its time in the national media. No spotlight for this small fire.

However, there is another important aspect of the story. It has long been determined that no single firefighting agency can “protect and serve” to the extent desired, so long-term relationships have been built and fostered between San Bernardino County Fire, CALFIRE and the US Forest Service. These agencies have become increasingly dependent on each other to provide the resources necessary to launch aggressive initial responses, even in the middle of the night.

As experienced in the Canyon Fire and numerous other fires snuffed out this year by efficiently responding fire crews from all three agencies, nighttime fires are a fact of life here in Southern California. The SBNF has a unique feature with a large population base both inside and outside of the designated National Forest boundaries and, for whatever reason, wildfires commonly occur at any time of day. So fire engine staffing doesn’t always stop at 5:00 p.m. or when the sun sets.

Between the three agencies, a total of 20 engines responded to the Canyon Fire that morning. In addition, two water tenders, three 20-person fire crews, three bulldozers, a night air supervision plane and the night water dropping helicopter all began their respective rapid responses to the Canyon Fire, intent on keeping the fire as small as possible. This is the only way it can be here in Southern California.

USFS Engine crew 336 in front of the Engine and station 36

The USFS Engine 336 crew that responded to the Canyon Fire. From left: Firefighter Nick Brasher, Firefighter Steve Basua, Senior Lead Firefighter Felix Cunningham, Assistant Engineer Pedro Barba and Captain Mark Munoz

The Supervisors Play a Role

The firefighters’ supervisors didn’t really want to take any credit in this story because, isn’t it really all about the firefighters? No. Not always. The firefighters have all been trained and continue training day to day. But leadership plays a key role in the story too. They provide the opportunity, funding and, most importantly, a positive work environment in which these employees strive to learn more, develop new skills and become the best firefighters they can be. The leaders also make decisions, often daily, about how long to work the crews each day. They use tools such as the National Weather Service Fire Weather forecasts and the Forest Service Predictive Services outlooks and Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index. Since 24 hour staffing isn’t a regular work schedule for Forest Service firefighters, the supervisors are faced with the impossible task of trying to foresee when a fire is going to happen, and not let the firefighters go home that night. Such was the case of the Canyon Fire. Based on years of experience, constant coordination both internally and externally and that old reliable gut-feeling, there was a fire engine on-duty less than one mile from the fire’s location.

Perhaps you have been asking yourself, “so how ‘big’ was the Canyon Fire?” It measured out to be just short of one acre. Awesome. This is just one example of our firefighters doing exactly what we ask of them. What the public expects of them. What makes us proud of them. Too bad we never hear about all the other “big” stories.

Between the night of the Canyon Fire and the October 17th posting of this story, there have been additional fires that SBNF fire personnel have responded to and, like in this story, have kept small.