All Firefighters go Home to their Families After their Shift

Chaotic conditions separate the professionals from the exceptionals.  Photo by:  Betsy Harden. The second flaming front of the Rim Fire as viewed from the roof of the Rogge’s Historical Ranch house.  Photo by: Betsy Harden. Hotshot crew members, like former Stanislaus Hotshot Damon Carson-Hull, are solid as a rock when it comes to suppression techniques.  USFS Photo. Forest Service firefighters like Molly Day catch 98% of fires at less than 100 acres. USFS Photo. Fire training kicks in when things get intense on the line.  Photo by:  Photo by Brian Ambrose.



The Number One Rule of Firefighting:

“All Firefighters go Home to their Families After their Shift”

The Rim Fire has a voice and it has yet to be heard.  Though we can all surmise what conditions were like on the largest fire to ever race across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, there’s only one true way to know what really happened and that is to ask the boots on the ground.  How do you balance a gut-wrenching fire fight with the need to bring your crew home safely? What is it like to battle a fire like the Rim Fire? To stand ground within a bulldozer line while you watch a wall of flame approach your safety zone? How does it feel to burn out around somebody’s house, look over your shoulder as you depart the cresting fire, and wonder if the house would remain standing or turn into a pile of ash? 

As crews were herding the Rim Fire in a tactical attempt to box the fire in, fire personnel could not help but think about the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who had recently lost their lives in a fire shelter deployment while making a stand on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. 

The death toll of Yarnell Hill was the worst in U.S. history since 1933, when the Griffith Park Fire killed 29 firefighters.  Some local Stanislaus crew members also recall peering over the canyon edge at the newly ignited Rim Fire and having memories of another death that had occurred on the Forest ten years previously, not far from where they stood. 

Eva Schike died building fireline downhill, in a steep canyon, when the wind suddenly shifted and the fire started moving rapidly up the slope.  She was within 5 feet of the highway when she succumbed to the Tuolumne Fire.  She was 23 years old.

Along with the ten standard firefighting orders, crews know there is another more serious directive they must always keep in mind - that all firefighters go home to their families after their shift is over. 

While looking down into the canyon at the rapidly growing start, Damon Carson-Hull’s first thoughts were, “This is going to be a major fire fight.  There’s already a monster smoke column.  We’ve got a red flag warning hanging over our heads and the fuels are drought dry.”

Damon Carson-Hull, Battalion Chief on the Mi-Wok Ranger District, was the initial Incident Commander (IC) on the Rim Fire.  He’s pulaski-tough and well-seasoned with 17 years of firefighting experience, most of it on the Stanislaus.  “Of all of the fires I’ve seen,” said Damon, “this one exhibited the most extreme fire behavior and that includes the Cedar Fire.”  Pushed by Santa Ana winds, the Cedar Fire burned over 280,000 acres in San Diego County during the firestorm of 2003.

Sizing up the fire and calling in for additional resources is one task the IC undertakes.  As Damon was doing this, he was struck by how fast the fire was moving.  “Within one minute, the fire jumped from 10 acres to 40.” 

“With the steep canyons, no road access and the tight spacing of the fuels, there was no way to safely go direct on this fire,” says Carson-Hull.  “Instead, we had to rely on aircraft to cool the fire down while we devised a plan to box it in.”  By the time the size-up was done, the fire had grown to 150 acres. 

Within seven minutes, aircraft were on scene dropping retardant.  32,021 gallons were painted on the surrounding hills within a 4.5 hour period.  

“My plan was to box the fire in and then impose a set of contingencies in case the first box did not hold,” says Damon. 

In the back of his mind, Damon remembered losing firefighter, Eva Schicke, in the 2004 Tuolumne Fire, a fire that burned only a few miles away under very similar conditions.  He knew that a sudden shift in winds on the Rim Fire could be tantamount to death.

“It’s not safe to send crews into a place without escape routes or safety zones,” reflects the IC.  “At the end of the day, it’s my job to make sure that everyone on my crew returns to their families in one piece.  That responsibility rests on my shoulders.”

Damon located a ridge where a fuel break could be constructed safely, and used the river bottoms themselves as natural fuel breaks.  For two days this was the general plan.

Evacuations began along the Tuolumne River Canyon.  “We removed about 150 kayakers and campers from a dangerous location at the bottom of the canyon,” says Damon, “…and it’s a good thing we did.  The area they were camping in burned over a few days later.”

Damon made a series of life and property impacting decisions as the Incident Commander, but upcanyon winds were pushing the fire and it was getting bigger by the moment.  “It became obvious pretty fast that we didn’t have enough resources available to catch this fire,” said Damon, “So I ordered a Type 2 Incident Management Team [on August 17th at 4:30 in the afternoon].”

The next priority was to protect several ranches and private homes.  Damon took an engine crew and a bulldozer to protect the historic Rogge Ranch.  The dozer cut a fuel break around the houses.  Then the engine crew came in to clean up the dead woody material.  “When the fuelbreak was completed we started chasing the many spot fires that were falling within our circle of green,” said Damon.  “Cooling off the surface of one of the houses became our next task and we also had to make sure the propane tank did not explode.  Meanwhile we watched the flames shoot up over the ridge.”

“We were literally sitting in the eye of the storm watching as a series of massive flaming fronts hit.  Flame lengths in excess of 150 feet were putting out so much radiant heat that brush and trees were spontaneously combusting without even being touched by flames,” said the IC.  “Firewhirls, which are like a fire tornado, were springing up. That’s when we lost the barn.”

“The Rim Fire hit us so fast and hot that it over powered the planned defences and back-burn actions, engulfing us in flames,” said David Harden Rogge Ranch family member. “Fortunately, Damon and his crew reacted immediately to the new circumstances.” 

The crew saved David’s family home and the 575 gallon propane tank sitting next to it.  Jeremy Craddock, Forest Equipment Manager and Dozer Operator on the Rim Fire, used his dozer to cutoff the fire before it reached the house.  He actually pushed a blade full of fiery debris down into the creek in a final, valiant attempt to save the structure. 

When Damon was asked if the circular fuel break was adequate, his quiet response was, “It was just big enough.  We were able to save their homes, but we lost the barn.”  

Damon’s hands were full that day.  Just as the second massive front hit and the barn caught fire, he received several other priority calls from dispatch.  Evidently several vehicles full of people were being escorted through the fire on the Cottonwood Road when the flames got dangerously close.  “We didn’t know if anyone had survived,” said Damon.  “Fortunately, a few minutes later, dispatch informed me that everyone had made it out safely.”

“These guys fight fires and back burn all of the time, that’s what they do,” said Harden who witnessed the fire fight at his family’s ranch.  “Damon, Jeremy and the rest of that crew are among the firefighting exceptionals.  We are forever grateful to them all.”

Molly Day fought the Rim Fire from the northern flank.  Molly, a Stanislaus National Forest Firefighter for 17 years, has also worked as a hotshot and on an engine crew. Currently she is a Fire Prevention Technician for the Mi-Wok District. Molly has worked on the Stanislaus her entire career and she knows the terrain. 

When Molly looked down on the beginning stages of the Rim Fire, her thoughts were, “This is the worst possible place for a fire to have started.  Out of the nine fatalities on the Forest, four of them have occurred in this canyon.”

Chamise is a type of brush so volatile it’s locally called greasewood.  “That’s where the fire got started,” said Molly.  Before long, it was racing up the steep slope towards Buck Meadows.

“The long range spotting was causing the fire to really leap-frog ahead,” said Molly.  “It was causing serious control issues.  Every time we made a plan, the fire exceeded our expectations.”

On day 4, Molly found herself in the Quilty Creek area. She was there, along with Engine 14, sizing up the historic Quinn Ranch home.  “The plan was to burn out around the cedar bark home that night,” said Molly. “Within a half an hour spot fires were raining down all around the area.  That’s how fast-paced the fire was.  As the fire crested over the ridge, the radiant heat was terrific.”

The evening plan was no longer viable and a snap decision had to be made.  Engine 14 had left the Quinn Ranch since it appeared the fire would hit the Rogge Ranch first. 

“Gut instincts will make you want to leave an area like that,” she said, “but then all of my training as a Firing Boss kicked in.  I had an escape route and I just knew if I could get enough fire on the ground in small patches, I could lessen the intensity of the blaze and possibly save the house.”

Because the fire was moving so quickly, she had less than an hour to burn out around the cabin.   Some decisions needed to be made.  The local radio repeater had burned up so Molly could no longer communicate with fire personnel at Rogge Ranch.  So, she radioed Dispatch to give them her location and then began firing operations, alone. 

As the fire and the smoke neared, an eerie calm and early darkness fell. Sweating, Molly quickly finished her work and retreated to her pre-determined safety zone.  The radiant heat was intense. 

She paused to glance back at the cresting fire and its proximity to the cabin, “I wonder if this place will make it?”  A week would pass before she learned that not only had the house survived, but so had the large trees on the property.  It is now the only green spot on the landscape for miles around.

“It’s really easy to get tunnel vision when property is involved,” reflects the Fire Prevention Technician, “but I knew there was a safe way out, so I did what I could and then I left.  No one wanted this fire out more than we did. This is our backyard.”

Groves of ancient Giant Sequoias were also spared in Yosemite.  The town of Pine Mountain Lake was saved along with Groveland and the U.S. Forest Service Ranger Station located there.  The city of Tuolumne, Camp Mather and the Peach Grower’s cabin tract also survived the flames. 

A Year After Containment

Officially, the Rim Fire was not declared out until November 4th, 2014.  Without rain, log piles still simmered in the woods all year. 

Approximately 5,000 fire personnel joined the front lines here on the Stanislaus and just ten were injured. Fighting fires is always risky business.  Steep terrain and volatile fuels crisped by two years of drought made it nearly unstoppable.

“Our firefighters, especially the Initial Attack Incident Commander, had to make very difficult, timely decisions,”  said Chris Schow, Stanislaus Fire Chief, “Their training, experience and sense of duty put them in the hot-seat day in and day out for eight weeks.”

Saving homes is important, but it can never stack up to the bigger Rim Fire success.  At the end of one of the worst firefighting battles in California’s history, every single firefighter returned home to their families at the end of their shift.