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Say what you want about drought, climate change, general weather weirdness and dogs and cats living together, evidence is mounting this summer, California’s four year drought is much more than a water issue. Our forests are tinder dry. That rain we had just a few weeks ago in the mountains? Nothing but a blip on the radar, so to speak. Whereas areas of California received quite a bit of precipitation, the latest dry weather has made a dent in mid-season rain.
The #RockyFire is an example of Lake County’s summer parched vegetation. As a kid growing up there, fire (is) always a dry season hazard. The unique terrain, heavy incendiary vegetation, coupled with hot weather and afternoon winds, can lead to explosive fire growth.
Such is the case with the Rocky.
I had all of my assignments completed last Wednesday. Sonoma County had been experiencing several small brush fires, so I was listening to the scanner dispatches a little closer than usual. I’ve always been a spot news kind of guy, it’s important that people know what’s going on in their community. So, when a smoke check toned out near Safari West around 3:30 or so, I decided to head that way. It turned out to be nothing, but I was hearing chatter about a fire in Morgan Valley. Being pretty close to Calistoga, I decided to head that way. If the fire was big enough, the smoke plume would rise over Mt. St. Helena and the jagged Palisades cliffs. The plateau of Porter Creek Road before heading in to the Napa Valley is a vantage point which affords a good view. When I saw that header rising over the mountain, I knew the fire was going to go big.
I’ve told several people in the newsroom if you can see the smoke from our second story office windows, most likely it’s a big deal. Looking back, I realize that the Safari West smoke check was a person watching the Rocky. By the time I made it over the mountain in to Middletown the header had become a beast and the Incident Commander (IC) was ordering up literally tons of equipment. A Cal Fire Air Attack pilot was asking for the Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) the new generation of tanker that can drop 10,000 gallons of retardant. Being so early in the firefight with just a hint of immediacy in the pilot’s voice was a key indicator that whatever resources they could get, they would need.
I stopped off Butts Canyon Road in Middletown and made a frame, to document it’s growth.
You can see a little puff of smoke just above the yellowish barn. That is a second fire, which was reported just a few seconds later by the Air Attack. Later, the two columns would merge.
Anytime I go in to this situation, I run through a mental checklist of what to expect, what to avoid and the inherent risk of covering a wildland fire. However, you never exactly know what you’ll come up against. It was easy enough to get to the fire, eventually stopped by a roadblock from the Department of Fish and Game. He told me to leave; everyone to leave. After about 30 minutes I was able to enter the fire area at a close distance (California law is on my side with access). I worked the perimeter of the fire, shooting scene setting photos, being careful to not get in the way of fire apparatus or those evacuating. Eventually, I waded in to the housing areas to make photos. Below is one of the first photos I made after gaining access.
It was hot probably close to 106. Not really windy; but as the fire began to increase in size, inflow winds drawn in by the fire interacted with orography of the slopes creating it’s own weather, forming huge pyrocumulus clouds.
Covering smaller brush fires is a real challenge. Most of the time, it’s a mop-up type photo; you know, firefighters scraping a containment line. Uh-uh not this time.
Obviously, firefighters had their hands full. Even backfires were tough to set, the erratic nature of the topography and weather conditions played a huge factor in how it burned.
As twilight faded, the weather turned interesting -if it hadn’t been already. It didn’t cool down. The temperature climbed, the humidity plummeted and it became very windy. A thermometer on the side of a house said 110 degrees. That’s like San Antonio in the summer with humidity. Air tankers eked out the last light of the day and made drops on a flank of the fire at Morgan Valley Road.
Nothing felt right, the hair on my neck stood on end. The fire, in search of oxygen, roared down the valley in to a rural sub-divison of homes, spotting 1/4 mile in front of the head.
At this moment you decide you are a person who values life, a family to come home to with a crazy dog in tow. The trappings of domesticity are real, comforting and safe, food is on the table and milk with your cookies to dunk. Then the photojournalist in you says, okay, that guy down there has defensible space, I have a safety zone and at least one way out of the canyon. I was unsure about the way out, not knowing if the fire ABOVE the canyon to the south had burned over the road, where the fuel load was more dense. I figured it would make a pretty good photo. Firefighters were stationed at every home. I felt reassured. The photo below is the only one of three frames in focus.
Firefighters do this for a living. The utmost respect should be afforded to anyone putting themselves in harms way to protect someone they don’t know. It’s gutsy at the very least.
So I went back to Clearlake after the fire blew through. I sent the photos, suggesting the evacuation photo be published across the entire page. It was. Still, the adrenaline was pumping, there were more photos to get, to show the fury of what was taking place. I made some photos of the moon and the fire screaming up hillsides and ran in to a fire photographer from SoCal, Stuart Palley, who makes really nice images of just about everything he shoots.
With no hotel rooms available, I decided to get some rest out of the fire zone in the parking lot of the hotel. After fits and starts, crumpled up in a car seat a little short for my frame, I made one last effort for a room. Luckily a person never showed and I got it at 4:30 am. The next er.. same day, reporter Glenda Anderson and I looked for evacuees, or those that stayed in their homes overnight inside the evac perimeter and made images of a burnout operation with a local strike team from Cloverdale, Windsor and Geyserville to fill out the story I was attempting to tell.
As the heat ramped up, fire behavior became more erratic. It was crazy. Last year, I thought the fire behavior was the worst I had ever seen. The Rocky Fire, hands down, was 10 times worse than conditions posed last year.
Just think. It’s only August.