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Extreme reporting is what I call it. Some folks jump out of perfectly good airplanes, some surf with sharks and still others free climb huge cliffs; there are those that walk tightropes over 1,000 foot canyons. Yes, everyone has their extreme something. In the news biz, we cover just about anything and everything. It takes a ton of curiosity and a willingness to put yourself in unenviable positions in order to tell a story. A story that may take you away from family for hours and sometimes agonizing loneliness for days. It can happens slowly, like a flood or a big rainstorm. You can prepare.
Wildland fires sort of fit into a ‘moments notice’ category which leads to an immediate disruption of plans, changing of schedules, reacting to the moment at hand. Fluidity is an understatement; preparation is a mind game and risk and fear are very real factors. How first responders wade into disasters or tragic situations is a testament to the dedication and passion that these men and women have for making things right in sometimes hellish and heinous conditions. Beyond hellish best describes the Valley fire. If you haven’t given thanks to a firefighter, do so. It’s a crazy, risk your life profession even when prepared.
A Saturday, cool and overcast. I was being lazy, my son decompressing from a heavy week of school and my wife at lunch with a friend. Our Golden was running around the house like a crazy beast. The first hint of trouble were air tankers flying over our house, red stains of phos-check on their underside, unusual for that time of day. I checked my Twitter feed and a post was made about a two-acre fire on Cobb Mountain, moderate to rapid rate of spread. I’ve always dreaded a fire on Cobb Mountain. Reporter Glenda Anderson and I did a story on the beetle kill in the Boggs State Forest earlier this summer, it was tinder dry then and the trees were dying at a higher rate due to the drought, compounded by bark beetles.
Dread. Important word. I flipped the police scanner on, immediately picked up radio traffic from the fire. The first words in mid-transmission “…..better evacuate Cobb.” the Air Attack pilot’s voice was deadly serious, matter of fact. It resonated, translating to unspoken words. Do it now, do it quickly. When the Air Attack came back on to say “50 acres and rapid rate of spread,” Our family weekend was changed abruptly. This summer has been tough on them, I’ve been to more fires and away from home too much.
Kelly, my wife, made sure I was all set with water, safety gear and wits. I gave her a kiss and hugged our son Mac, Seeyalater and not goodbye; it’s rarely goodbye.
I knew the residents of Cobb were in trouble. I kept my mobile scanner on Cal Fire’s main frequency and kept listening as I wheeled over Mt. St. Helena, the closest and the fastest way to the scene. The Air Attack would come on every few minutes talking with the Incident Commander (IC)
“250 acres, rapid rate of spread.”
“400 acres, rapid rate of spread in the timber”
“The fire has passed through Hobergs.”
The IC called to dispatch:
“I need 3 Branch directors
8 Division Supervisors
40 Engines, any type, immediate need
10 water Tenders
2 Medics, ground
2 Medic Copters”
In the middle of all this were reports of fire shelters deployed by a fire crew. Later I found out it was a portion of the Boggs Helitack crew and all were flown out by REACH personnel, picked up on the helipad where the Bogg’s Crew is stationed. Years ago, I flew on a few missions with these guys. Great group of people. My heart sank.
All at once, Cobb and Middletown were being evacuated at the same time, due to the Air Attack’s reporting they were going to lose the line at Gifford Springs Road in Whispering Pines.
Highway 175 was clogged at the base of the grade to Cobb Mountain. Let through, I witnessed a steady stream of cars, trucks, motor homes and motorcycles, panic etched on the faces of drivers. Below is the first photo I made. Ominous and roaring.
Second image, below
I hooked up with a crew from Nice and Lucerne protecting a structure from burning on Hobergs Loop. (Photos at top of post).
Ammunition kept going off in one house, meaning a quick retreat for about 10 minutes. We all ventured back in. All around there were explosions of BBQ propane tanks, propane tanks venting, and the whoosh of fire running through the tall fir trees so prevalent in the Cobb area.
Heeding a warning that HWY 175 was going to be cut-off through the canyon, I raced back down to beat the fire. It beat me. It was a 12 mile long fire front moving at unbelievable speed.
From there, it raced in to Middletown on one front, the other in to Hidden Valley Lakes. It spotted in to Butts Canyon and then over St. Helena Creek south of downtown Middletown. It was all over the place, torching everything in it’s path. Later, the fire spotted over 175, engulfing homes on the north and west side of Middletown.
As darkness approached, well, the smoke pretty much blotted out the sun anyway, I felt a need to head to Hidden Valley Lakes to document what was going on there. That meant a quick trip up Highway 29.
Yeah, in theory.
A Lake County Sheriff’s deputy stopped me. “You’re not going to make it through”. He was right, I wasn’t going to make it to the other side.
So, being the resourceful journalist, I felt that Highway 175 up over Cobb would be the best bet, I was certain the fire had blown through. Well, about halfway up, the fire was pretty intense. I didn’t shoot any photos, it was a two-handed white knuckle drive over the top in to Whispering Pines. Eventually, taking Bottle Rock Road to Highway 53 back to Highway 29, I wound up in Hidden Valley, where I shot the picture below.
Needing to get photos back to the PD newsroom and the Associated Press, I stopped to send pictures. Then my computer died. A quick trip to Clearlake fixed the situation, able to get power and a little fresh air. After that, I moved back in to Middletown, where chaos was ensuing, half the town was on fire, literally, sadly.
By then it was Sunday. I felt the need to document the Valley fire through the night, sure it was gong to be the largest, deadliest and costliest disaster Lake County had ever witnessed.
At around 4:30 am, I managed to get about an hour of sleep in the parking lot of Twin Pines Casino. Then, back to the streets to document the aftermath.
After a week of coverage, I know that areas where fire came through will be rebuilt and that some may enjoy what the region has to offer. It will be a long, trying and tough course residents need to take. There will need to be patience and an outpouring of assistance in order to make the area livable again.