Cal Fire Details Crew’s Struggle With Dangerous Terrain in Santa Cruz Mountains Wildfire

A blaze that began as a house fire spread into surrounding trees and brush in the Santa Cruz Mountains on Oct. 16. (KTVU via YouTube)

Cal Fire has issued its preliminary review of an October fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains that was relatively modest in size but caused an unusually high number of firefighter injuries.

The agency’s “green sheet” report on the 391-acre Bear Fire, near Boulder Creek, details one crew’s struggle to combat the blaze in the predawn darkness while contending with extremely rugged terrain that became almost as dangerous as the fire itself.

The five-member hand crew was among the first to battle the blaze off Bear Creek Canyon Road in the early morning hours of Oct. 17. Hours after the suspected arson fire started, the green sheet says, the team found itself facing extreme danger.

As the blaze burned in a precipitous, heavily forested canyon, the crew faced what wildland firefighters call a “rollout”: Burning logs tumbled down the slope toward them, starting small spot fires outside containment lines and forcing them to try to scramble to safety.

As they headed toward a primary escape route, the rollout intensified, so they needed to find another way to a creekbed below them, according to Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jake Hess, the Bear Fire’s incident commander.

But struggling to negotiate the steep terrain in the dark, team members began falling down the canyon.

“The earth literally gave out underneath these firefighters,” Hess said in an interview.

Two firefighters fell 50 feet down to the creek, yelling as they dropped. A third firefighter fell, his head slamming against a rock on the way down. Then two other firefighters slipped and fell.

“Emergency traffic, firefighter down!” a captain radioed, initiating what Cal Fire calls an “incident within an incident” protocol.

The firefighter who hit his head was seriously injured. Two firefighters created a makeshift harness from his chainsaw chaps and other gear.

As they were pulling him back up the canyon, one of the firefighters shielded his hurt comrade from a falling rock, a move that broke his arm. Another firefighter suffered a broken hand as yet another rock fell out.

The firefighter with the worst injury was taken by helicopter to a hospital. A week later Cal Fire reported the injury to California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, prompting the agency’s only investigation into a firefighter injury in connection with the dozens of wildfires that broke out around the state in October, according to Cal/OSHA spokesman Frank Polizzi.

In all, 13 firefighters were injured battling the Bear Fire, according to authorities. Most of the injuries were minor.

The Bear Fire broke out a week after huge, destructive fires swept Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Butte counties. Those blazes killed 43 people, including one firefighter who died when his water tanker crashed in the hills west of the Napa County town of Yountville.

More than 1,000 firefighters battled the Bear Fire, which in addition to burning 391 acres also destroyed two homes, four outbuildings, five RVs and 17 other vehicles, according to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff’s deputies arrested Marlon Coy, 54, of Boulder Creek for allegedly setting the fire. He was charged with several arson counts.

Cal Fire Details Crew’s Struggle With Dangerous Terrain in Santa Cruz Mountains Wildfire 20 November,2017Ted Goldberg

Author

Ted Goldberg

Ted Goldberg is the morning editor for KQED News. His beat areas include San Francisco politics, the city’s fire department and the Bay Area’s refineries.

Prior to joining KQED in 2014, Ted worked at CBS News and WCBS AM in New York and Bay City News and KCBS Radio in San Francisco. He graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1998.

You can follow him at @TedrickG and reach him on email at tgoldberg@kqed.org

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