Firefighters saw signs of hope while battling the stubborn Rocky fire Tuesday, but they remained wary of the potential for winds and thunderstorms that could cause problems, especially after the blaze jumped Highway 20 late Monday.
The fire, burning in Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties, began a week ago and has destroyed 67,000 acres. It was 20 percent contained Tuesday.
“This fire has continued to progress in size,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant in a Tuesday webcast. “We were trying to hold it at Highway 20 (Monday). Unfortunately, with the winds that picked up and with the increased fire activity, this fire jumped over Highway 20.”
He said if winds blow hard from the east, a portion of the fire that jumped the highway could spread to the north and west, where plenty of dry fuel remains.
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Despite the risk for winds and thunderstorms, the weather was considered beneficial Tuesday with cooler temperatures, light precipitation and overcast skies delivering a semblance of relief. Temperatures in the region dipped into the mid-60s, according to the National Weather Service.
Chris Mojica, a captain with the Columbia Fire Protection District resting at base camp, said the challenge with the Rocky fire was that it was not burning cleanly but was leaving debris and vegetation behind.
“It’s not burning all the fuels completely so there can be back-burn,” Mojica said. “You don’t really know what it’s going to do.”
About 3,200 personnel were battling the fire, which threatened nearly 7,000 buildings and had resulted in evacuation orders.
At the Lake County Fairgrounds on Tuesday morning, where a makeshift command post has been set up, more than 1,000 firefighters devoured a breakfast of ham, scrambled eggs and oatmeal before deploying on a 24-hour shift. The camp, 30 miles from the blaze, is where firefighters rest, eat and pass time between shifts.
“It’s a city within a city,” said Capt. Jason Shanley of the San Diego Fire Department, acting as a Cal Fire spokesman there.
The camp features hot showers, laundry facilities, bunk beds, a kitchen and even copy machines – all within portable trailers.
Cal Fire sends out requests for support to agencies across the state. Firefighters assigned to strike teams converge at one location before driving up together, Shanley said.
On their day off, firefighters are doing one of three things: eating, showering or sleeping.
At base camp, firefighters get three hot meals a day, served from a trailer staffed by inmates from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Some meals include steak, but Shanley noted it isn’t filet mignon. “It’s good, but you’re not going to get gourmet food,” he said.
Firefighters are constantly watching the amount of food they consume so they have enough energy during the long shifts. Crews going into the field are handed a sack lunch filled with energy-rich foods like nutrition bars, cookies and fruit. Each bag has roughly 10,000 calories, Shanley said.
At Lakeport, Cal Fire contracts with The Mobile Sleeper Company to provide air-conditioned semi-trailers with bunk beds. The camp has 15 trailers, with a total capacity of 630 people.
While the trailers are dark and cramped inside, each firefighter gets an individual bunk, consisting of a plastic-covered mattress and privacy curtain. Firefighters bring their own blanket, pillow or sleeping bag. A small light for reading is provided, and each bunk has its own air-conditioning vent.
Any small reminder of comfort is a welcome respite for firefighters. Crews battling wildfires must deal with the taxing demands of constantly monitoring fire activity, unlike traditional shifts at home that are driven by responding to emergencies as they unfold.
“You try to catch some rest, but one or two men still need to be awake,” said Glendale fire Capt. Tyler Richardson.
All are aware of the risks they face on the front lines. David Ruhl, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter battling a blaze in Modoc National Forest, died last week of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation, Forest Service officials announced Tuesday.
Ruhl, an engine captain with Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, was reported missing Thursday evening during an initial attack on the Frog fire. His body was found Friday, but the cause of death wasn’t released until Tuesday after the autopsy was complete.