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Ken Hale: Bravo, firefighters!

The River Fire threatened the town of Colfax on the Placer County side of the Bear River. On our side (Nevada County), it threatened hundreds of homes, thousands of people, their animals, and all their worldly possessions. The column of smoke could be seen from more than 50 miles away after the fire took off. It burned from Bear River Campground up and down the canyon. Then it jumped the river into Nevada County, where the afternoon up-canyon winds pushed it toward the Rollins Lake dam.

Standing in our backyard, I watched the smoke column billow into the sky and drift across the ridge that separated our house from the fire. As a retired firefighter, I prepared to do battle.

Some years ago, I put a 1,500-gallon tank up the hill from our house and laid a 3-inch water main down to a fire hydrant in our front yard. Then I purchased 300 feet of used inch-and-a-half attack line and a fog nozzle to fight any fire I might encounter, including inside our house. I deployed all of this as I continued to watch the smoke from the River Fire build to crescendo that afternoon.



My wife and I opted to stay and fight, even though Nevada County and Cal Fire had warned us of impending evacuation. After fighting fire for Cal Fire for 41 fire seasons, I figured, perhaps in vanity, that I know at least as much as most of the folks who were directly on this fire line.

Then I waited for the fire to come to me. It looked like our house would be on the left flank and the fire would be backing down from the top of the ridge. Even though it was just me and her, I felt sure I could handle whatever this fire was about to throw at me. I know this is contrary to the Cal Fire program that calls for all of us to pack up and leave when they tell us to. My background prevented me from following those sage instructions.




Then I waited and waited some more. As the sun tipped toward the western horizon, the winds died and the temperature dropped a bit, raising the relative humidity. The smoke column began to thin in the azure blue sky. So I stood in our yard and continued waiting for the River Fire to come to me.

It never arrived.

The fire resources who were on the line stopped the fire where they found it. For the most part, they kept it within the confines of Bear River Canyon. Homes on both sides of the river were consumed during the early stages and rapid spread of the fire.

But firefighters from Cal Fire, Nevada County Consolidated Fire, Higgins Fire and Peardale/Chicago Park Fire held it at the lip of the canyon. They were assisted by a multitude of air tankers, copters, and both county sheriff’s offices.

What an amazing feat! In all of the fires I fought in my career, and that is many fires, I have never seen anything quite like this.

I didn’t get much sleep the first night. I was out at the end of my fire hose at dawn. Looking toward the ridge that separates our house from the fire, I saw no smoke. When I say no smoke, that is what I mean.

That next day, on the hour, I hiked out to the end of my attack line to check for smoke. There was none all day long. The firefighters on the line held the River Fire where they found it. As I said before, I have never seen anything like this in a very long career. These firefighters did not back off. They saw there was an opportunity to stop the River Fire where it sat. They went to work and stopped it cold. Official containment is not predicted until Aug. 14, but the River Fire has not grown now in more than 24 hours as I write.

Fires like this can last days, sometimes longer, burning everything in their path. With a gigantic effort, our firefighters put this one out in one day! I can’t describe how difficult a task that is.

I am not easily impressed by firefighting tactics. I did it for too long. On the River Fire, I am much more than impressed. I’m amazed. To everyone who fought this fire, bravo! This is a job that was extremely well done.

Ken Hale is a retired Cal Fire battalion chief. He lives in Grass Valley.

 


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