LOWELL FIRE: 4 firefighters injured, airlifted to safety | TheUnion.com

LOWELL FIRE: 4 firefighters injured, airlifted to safety

Keri Brenner
Staff Writer

With a “full air attack” in progress and almost 800 firefighters on the ground, stepped-up efforts at the Lowell Fire turned dangerous Sunday when four firefighters were outrun by the flames and sustained burn injuries, one with “serious burns,” according to Cal Fire Communications Chief Dan Berlant.

“All four have been airlifted to safety and paramedics are assessing their condition,” Berlant said.

Cal Fire spokesperson Lynne Tolmachoff said the four firefighters were all taken to UC Davis Medical Center.

Two of the injured came from Cal Fire. The other two, including the firefighter with “serious burns” work for the U.S. Forest Service, according to Berlant.

“We have firefighters from Southern California — Santa Barbara, Riverside, San Diego — and local firefighters, at least one (crew) from every fire agency in Nevada County.”Cal Fire spokesperson Lynne Tolmachoff

All day Sunday, air and ground crews worked feverishly to battle the Lowell Fire in advance of an expected wind shift late Sunday or Monday morning, officials said.

“We’re working on all sides of the fire today trying to get containment lines, and working to stop the forward spread,” said Tolmachoff, who was at the incident command center at Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley.

“We have less wind today, and we still have cooler temperatures,” she said, adding that the wildfire, burning on 1,500 acres, was 15 percent contained as of Sunday night.

“A wind shift tonight could create problems, especially in the other directions.”

Berlant posted at 3 p.m. Sunday that air drops were intensifying.

“With hundreds of firefighters on the ground, a full air attack is occurring on the Lowell Fire in Nevada County,” Berlant posted on the Cal Fire Twitter feed.

Although triple-digit temperatures are predicted for Wednesday and Thursday, Tolmachoff said firefighters will try to make progress over the next two days while it’s still cooler.

“The next couple days in this fire should tell,” she said. “It’s not clear whether higher temperatures will play a part.”

Cal Fire spokesperson Alyssa Smith said a person of interest was detained earlier by Cal Fire investigators in Placer County, but she had no word whether the person was a suspect in starting the fire.

“We’re still waiting for confirmation,” Smith said Sunday. Investigators on Saturday released a description of a vehicle thought to be in the area at the time of the fire start. However, on Sunday, Berlant said that investigators were no longer looking for the vehicle.

Smith was holding fort at a trailer at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, which has been completely taken over by fire trucks, scores of firefighters, apparatus and even California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prison inmates who are being deployed to help contain the fire lines. The fairgrounds is also the shelter site for animals whose homes have been evacuated.

“The (Cal Fire) helicopters came here straight from the Napa fire at Lake Berryessa,” Smith said. “I was there yesterday, and that fire was more than half-contained by the time I left.”

Smith, who said she has been working for 72 hours straight, said Cal Fire on Sunday set up a mini-command post and vantage point for media and fire personnel at the intersection of You Bet and Red Dog roads.

“With such steep terrain, we’re really depending on air drops,” she said.

The Lowell Fire, which started Saturday afternoon, is burning in a northerly direction along the Steep Hollow Creek canyon, a drainage basin that runs in a hollow between rural Grass Valley and Nevada City on one side and 1-80 in Placer County on the opposite ridge. About 2,000 structures are still threatened; no structures have been destroyed so far, Tolmachoff said.

“There are 30 to 50 homes under mandatory evacuation,” she said.

Even though temperatures are cooler and winds are lower Sunday, access issues continue, Tolmachoff said.

“Access is the main problem, with the steep terrains and dry fuels,” she said.

“They’re using bulldozers, hand tools, chain saws,” she added. “Hoses are a problem because they’re having to stretch them out — you absolutely cannot drive an engine into the remote parts of the fire, so they’re having to do a lot of hiking.”

Crews that started Saturday afternoon and worked throughout the night were taken off the line Sunday morning so they could take a shower and get some sleep, Tolmachoff said.

New firefighters from “every county you could think of” in California relieved them Sunday morning, she said.

“We have firefighters from Southern California — Santa Barbara, Riverside, San Diego — and local firefighters, at least one (crew) from every fire agency in Nevada County.”

As to the air attack, air tankers from California and other states that are on contract with Cal Fire are flying out of the Cal Fire’s Grass Valley Air Attack Center at Nevada County Airport. Helicopters are flying out of the Blue Canyon Airport off Interstate 80, Tolmachoff said.

A new update from Cal Fire was expected late Sunday, Smith said. To check for updates, go to http://www.calfire.ca.gov.

Tahoe National Forest on Sunday announced the following Lowell Fire Information Line: (530) 478-6101.

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email kbrenner@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

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