17 Sep 2008, 1:36pm
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Contract firefighter dies after construction accident

By Kimberly Ross, Record Searchlight, September 17, 2008 [here]

A 77-year-old Happy Camp man has died from injuries suffered while serving as a contract firefighter in Siskiyou County, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman said Tuesday.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday commended Curtis Hillman Sr. for his service and announced that Capitol flags will be flown at half-staff in his honor, a spokesman from his office said.

Hillman, a member of the Karuk tribe, was operating a grader to improve road conditions and access for firefighters. They were working the Siskiyou and Blue 2 Complex of fires when Hillman was injured Aug. 25, public information officer Mike Ferris said.

He was working on forest roads 14 and 21, about half a mile from Highway 96 just south of Dillon Creek Campground, Ferris said. The area is halfway between Happy Camp and Orleans.

When his grader failed to start, Hillman and another worker tried to fix the problem. The grader then started, but its brake failed and it began to roll backward. Both men fell or jumped off the machine, and Hillman hit his head, Ferris said.

He was flown to Mercy Medical Center in Redding, where he died from his injuries Thursday, Ferris said.

His is the 13th death as a result of the June lightning strikes that ignited fires across the north state.

A celebration of Hillman’s life is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at the River Park Pavilion in Happy Camp, Ferris said.

An obituary in the Eureka Times-Standard says Hillman is survived by his wife, Susan, of Happy Camp, brother Grant of Orleans, children Charlene Neaf and husband Danny of Weaverville; Curtis R. Hillman Jr. and girlfriend Serena of Arcata; Leeon C. Hillman and wife Erin of Happy Camp; Shelly Niewinski and husband Jeff of Weaverville; Skooter Hillman of Happy Camp, 14 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to Mercy Medical Center Hospitality House in Redding.

9 Sep 2008, 7:15pm
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Growing Threat of Wildfire Government

by L.K. Samuels [here]

There was a time when volunteer fire departments, paid fire fighters and local residents would work hand-in-hand to put out wildfires. It was an amenable relationship, sharing hardships, goals and camaraderie. But if the 2008 California wildfires proved anything, it demonstrated that this alliance is no longer a cornerstone of American communities.

During the Big Sur fires in July, residents who did not evacuate reported that they felt they were behind “enemy lines.” When 79-year-old Don McQueen traveled down the road to his campground business to provide hot water showers for fire crews, he was detained by sheriff deputies and scolded.

Although McQueen was released, he soon discovered that fire officials had changed the rule book. To him it seemed like the various federal and state firefighting agencies no longer wanted to work with the community to put out fires. Instead, they wanted Big Sur residents to leave the area and stop defending their property. Worse still, the fire fighter crews were “strictly forbidden to assist locals.”

Despite experience fighting fires since the 1940s, McQueen was told to get off his ranch. When he refused, an official reportedly said, “We’re carefully allowing these homes to burn down. You can build a new house at no cost with your insurance money.” McQueen could hardly believe what he had heard.

According to local residents, many of the fire crews were grounded and told to let the fire burn itself out. One ashamed firefighter told them, “I was taught to put out fire, not let them burn.” Professionals watched as the locals on the front line fought the blaze. Finally, one crew become so upset that it covertly parked its engine near McQueen’s property, rolled out a 4,000-foot fire hose and helped him to maintain his fire break.
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1988 Canyon Creek fire remains seared into memory

By KARL PUCKETT, Great Falls Tribune Staff Writer, 08/17/2008 [here]

Two decades after the Canyon Creek fire burned some 250,000 acres in three national forests, the rogue blaze of 1988 continues to smolder in the minds of Montanans.

“You opened a bunch of new wounds,” said Don Converse, a rancher west of Augusta, when asked about it this week. “I’m still burning over this fire.”

The Yellowstone National Park-area fires, which combined to burn 1.4 million acres in Montana and Wyoming, captured the world’s attention in 1988.

But Canyon Creek, a rare catastrophic blow-up, was the single largest fire in Montana in a year marked by big fires and the biggest the state had seen in more than 75 years.

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the monster, which, carried along by jet stream winds, escaped the confines of the wilderness and burst onto the prairie west of Augusta.

In its wake, it left dead cattle and black pastureland, ranchers with deep scars and firefighters with a new appreciation and understanding of fire.

“Fire can kick your butt,” said Tim Love, the district ranger of the U.S. Forest Service’s Seeley Lake Ranger District, a young resource assistant on the Rocky Mountain Front at the time of the Canyon Creek fire.

Unremarkable start

Today, there are stricter guidelines in place that ensure suppression resources are available before a fire is allowed to burn in the wilderness, said Orville Daniels, the former supervisor of the Lolo National Forest, where the Canyon Creek fire began.

There’s also a better system of predicting fire potential, including a drought index.

Those changes followed the 1988 fires.

“Part of the purpose of the wilderness fire program is to learn,” Daniels said. “And we’re still learning.”

Canyon Creek started like most Western fires do, with a lightning bolt from the sky setting a tree ablaze. But it didn’t end up a footnote like most do.

To a person, those who fought it or fled from its path say the blaze that threatened Augusta and Ovando was a life-changing experience.

“That bugger went wild,” said Ross Friede of Ovando.

At the time, Friede was the manager of the Two Creek Ranch, and he nervously watched as the flames crept closer.

“I still have memories of things I’d seen out there,” said Dale Gorman of Great Falls, the former Supervisor of Lewis and Clark National Forest.

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15 Aug 2008, 6:40pm
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Forest budgets pilfered for California flames

U.S. Forest Service initiates fire-borrowing practices

By GREG STAHL, Idaho Mountain Express, 08/15/2008 [here]

Idaho has had a relatively calm fire season, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been smothered in smoke blown in from California since early July. Nor does it mean Idaho’s federal agency budgets aren’t going to be impacted by the ever-rising costs associated with combating the California flames.

Congress budgeted $1.2 billion for the Forest Service to combat fires this year. Current estimates have that figure climbing as high as $1.6 billion. The entire agency will tighten its belt to make up the difference, and in the Wood River Valley that means some projects will not be completed as planned.

“We were notified about two weeks ago, around Aug. 4, that fire transfer was imminent,” said the Sawtooth National Forest’s Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson.

Last week the U.S. Forest Service issued an agency-wide order to compile unallocated funds to be sent to help combat the California fires. The money is to be sent to California in four, $100 million installments.

“We’re doing fire borrowing,” said Sawtooth National Forest spokeswoman Alicia Bennett. “It’s the first time we’ve done this since 1995.”

Bennett said the Intermountain Region of the Forest Service has been asked to kick in $16 million. It is as yet unclear how much of that $16 million will be culled from local forest budgets in Central Idaho.

“Each region is given the amount of money they have to come up with,” Bennett said. “Then the region tells each of the forests what their share of the regional amount is. Right now we really don’t know what the forest share is.”

The Forest Service has struggled for years to pay for fighting fires that last year alone scorched nearly 10 million acres. As fire seasons grow longer and fires burn with more intensity in forests stressed by global warming the agency’s funding woes mount.

The problems this year are despite rising Forest Service fire fighting budgets. In 1998 10 percent of the agency’s budget was allocated to fight fires. This year that amount had climbed to 45 percent, and still that was not enough.

“It’s coming out of everybody’s budget,” Bennett said.

Non-emergency contracts are being pulled. Meetings, including conferences and educational seminars for employees, are being scrapped. No hiring will occur.

“At this point the option the agency has in terms of protective fire costs, we have to look at how we’re going to cover that shortfall and that’s to use the transfer authority and shift money from other programs to cover the estimated fire suppression cost,” Nelson said.

Last year, too, the agency exceeded its fire budget, Nelson said, but Congress allocated emergency spending before it adjourned for its August recess.

Now, forest managers are looking at pinching pennies, and for Nelson that means looking at money that was allocated to help rehabilitate portions of the Ketchum Ranger District that burned last year in the Castle Rock Fire.

“We’re going to be looking at whatever dollars we have not obligated or spent to date,” Nelson said. “Se we’ve got several projects we planned on accomplishing in August and September. Those will be put on hold or deferred until fiscal year 2009, which starts Oct. 1.”

For now, fire suppression costs in California continue to mount at $13 million per day. What’s more, the fire season in certain portions of the Rocky Mountains, like Idaho, has only just begun.

“It’s a rapidly evolving situation,” Nelson said. “As the chief said, ‘pray for rain.’”

As of August 5, 900,000 acres of Forest Service land had burned, up 100,000 acres from the same time a year ago.

13 Aug 2008, 12:07am
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Suit filed over 2006 fatal helicopter crash

Idaho Statesman, 08/12/08 [here]

The parents of Gary Lewis and Monica Lee Zajanc on Monday filed a wrongful death suit against Evergreen Helicopters in federal court, saying their pilot failed to comply with Forest Service helicopter pilot safety requirements.

Lewis, of Cascade, and Zajanc, of Boise, were firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service when they died in a helicopter crash Aug. 13, 2006, near Yellow Pine.

Also killed were Lillian Patten, of Olympia, Wash., a fire lookout, and the helicopter’s pilot, Quin Stone, of Emmett.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation determined the helicopter collided with a 90-foot-tall dead tree. The NTSB concluded the pilot’s intentional low altitude flight and failure to maintain adequate altitude to clear the trees were the crash’s probable cause.

The suit, filed by Larry Zajanc, Nolene Hollifield and Gary and Kay Lewis, contends McMinnville, Ore.-based Evergreen, which was under contract with the Forest Service, is responsible for the deaths.

The Forest Service requires all helicopter flights be conducted at least 500 feet above ground level unless the mission required flight at a lower altitude.

[For more information regarding this incident, see here and here]

6 Aug 2008, 4:39pm
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Eight firefighters, one crew member believed dead in Trinity County helicopter crash

from the Redding Record Searchlight, Aug 6, 2008 [here]

Eight firefighters and one helicopter crew member are missing and believed dead in Tuesday’s helicopter crash on the north end of the Buckhorn Fire in Trinity County, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said today. (The Buckhorn Fire is one of the Iron Complex Fires [here] — Ed)

Some fatalities were confirmed earlier this morning by the U.S. Forest Service, which earlier had announced that nine people were missing after the crash.

Identities of the nine who are believed dead have not been released.

The helicopter pilot and three fire fighters were injured in the crash, which was reported at about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday near Junction City. … [more]

28 Jul 2008, 10:37am
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Washington state fire chief killed in Calif. blaze

KOMO News [here]

REDDING, Calif. - A second Washington state firefighter has perished while battling a Northern California wildfire, officials said.

Daniel Packer, chief of East Pierce Fire & Rescue and past president of the Washington Fire Chiefs, was killed Saturday at about 3:30 p.m. while supervising firefighting efforts on the Panther Fire south of Happy Camp in Siskiyou County.

His death was confirmed by Mike Brown, executive director of the Washington State Fire Chiefs, and Spokane Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.

Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Susan Gravenkamp said the 250-acre fire was preventing crews from recovering the body to make a positive identification. But she said several other firefighters who escaped from the scene identified the victim as Packer, 49, of Lake Tapps.

Russ McCallion, batallion chief with Central Pierce Fire & Rescue, said he had been notified that Packer is missing and presumed dead.

“He was overrun by the fire when the wind shifted unexpectedly,” Schaeffer said.

The news comes only a day after 18-year-old Andrew Jackson Palmer, a firefighter with the Olympic National Park, was killed by a falling tree while battling another wildfire in Trinity County.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said she was “deeply saddened by the tragic deaths of two Washington state firefighters who were battling wildfires in Northern California.”

“My heart goes out to the family members and co-workers of Chief Packer and Firefighter Palmer,” Gregoire said. “I ask all Washingtonians to keep the families and fire departments of these brave men in their thoughts and prayers.”

Flags at many fire stations around Washington state were lowered to half staff.

Chief Packer was assigned to assume a supervisory position in the firefighting effort. He is a member of a Washington state-based incident management team that is deployed to major incidents such as large wildfires.

Fire officials said supervising firefighting efforts on the front lines Saturday, and had been scheduled to take command of a large team of up to 1,000 firefighters on Sunday.

A Forest Service investigation team is due to arrive on the Klamath National Forest by Monday, officials said.

The 250-acre Panther Fire was started by a lightning strike Monday night about 15 miles south of Happy Camp and has since burned toward Ukonom Creek and the Klamath River. It is part of the Siskiyou Complex fire near Yreka that has burned more than 50,000 acres and as of Saturday, was 36 percent contained.

The chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Abigail Kimbell, on a visit to Redding on Saturday, praised the courage of firefighters battling California’s unprecedented wildland fires.

Palmer, the first Washington state firefighter to die on the lines, was working his first day on the job when he was hit by a falling tree Friday. He had graduated in June from Port Townsend High School.

Port Townsend High School Athletic Director Scott Ricardo called Palmer a “bright and shining star.”

27 Jul 2008, 1:07pm
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Forest Service burns through its budgets

By Les Blumenthal - Sac Bee, July 27, 2008

WASHINGTON – The Forest Service has struggled for years to pay for fighting fires that last year alone scorched almost 10 million acres, mainly in the West. As fire seasons grow longer and the blazes more intense in forests stressed by global warming, the agency’s funding woes mount.

In fact, the Forest Service has already spent roughly $900 million this year, almost 75 percent of its fire-suppression budget, and the season is just nearing its peak.

Nearly half the Forest Service’s annual budget now is spent on battling wildfires or trying to prevent them. In 1991, 13 percent of its budget was spent on fires.

As the costs have grown, so has the toll on the agency’s other programs. To pay for its fire programs, the Forest Service has raided accounts used for everything from reforestation to fish and wildlife to building campgrounds and trails. In theory, those accounts are expected to be repaid. In practice, it’s not that easy.

“The whole damn thing is imploding,” said Casey Judd, business manager of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, in Inkom, Idaho. The group represents firefighters in five federal agencies.

Every year, Congress provides emergency money to bail out the Forest Service and other federal land management agencies. Over the past 10 years, it has provided $3.9 billion in emergency funding to fight fires. But some on Capitol Hill are getting tired of the Forest Service coming hat-in-hand every year because its budgets fail to adequately reflect firefighting costs.

“The Forest Service would be on its knees except for the money Congress provides,” said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who as chairman of the House interior appropriations subcommittee oversees the agency’s budget. “This thing is pretty close to being out of control.” … [more]

23 Jul 2008, 11:57pm
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Railroad To Pay Forest Service Record $102M Settlement For California Wildfire

by Windsor Genova, All Headline News, July 23, 2008 [here]Los Angeles, CA (AHN) - The Union Pacific Railroad Co. (UPRC) is paying the U.S. Forest Service $102 million to settle the federal agency’s lawsuit seeking damages from the firm for causing a California wildfire in 2000.

District Court Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. announced Tuesday the landmark settlement to the Forest Service covering damage to Plumas and Lassen national forests, lost timber and recreation use, and the cost of firefighting.

The settlement was reached without any admission of liability by the five UPRC workers the agency accused of negligence that caused the wildfire. “We feel our employees did all the right things,” UPRC spokesman Zoe Richmond told LATimes.com.

Richmond said UPRC workers had extinguished the flames on the track they repaired on Aug. 17, 2000, in Plumas National Forest when the fire started.

In the lawsuit, the Forest Service claimed the workers did not follow safety precautions in using power tools, did not use spark shields, and did not clear the track of smoldering bits of metal when they left.

A passing train ignited the metal, causing a blaze that spread across 52,000 acres. It took 2,500 firefghters more than three weeks to extinguish the flames at a cost of $22 million.

Calif. woman attacked by bear expected to recover

By Robert Jablon, AP

A woman mauled by a bear in rural Kern County underwent 10 hours of surgery and was expected to recover, her neighbor said Wednesday.

Allena Hansen, 57, was “lucid, active and probably pretty sore” after undergoing surgery Tuesday for serious cuts to her head and face, said August Dunning, who called her hospital room Tuesday night and spoke to her son. Dunning said he could hear his friend in the background.

“She’s fine. She’s talking,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

At the family’s request, the hospital would not release the woman’s condition or other information, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center spokeswoman Roxanne Moster said Wednesday.

Wildlife trackers using dogs hunted the bear on Wednesday. One tracking hound was slightly injured after midnight in what might have been an attack by the animal, Kevin Brennan, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, said at a news conference in Ontario.

The attack took place in the Piute area, near the little community of Caliente, on scrubland south of Sequoia National Forest about 85 miles north of Los Angles.

The bear was believed to be still in the area because they are “creatures of habit,” Brennan said.

“Right now, there’s a trap set. And we’re just waiting,” Brennan said. “There’s a good chance he’ll come back.”

Capturing the animal could take anywhere from hours to a week, he speculated.

Clothing from the woman was taken for forensic testing to determine if there is fur or other DNA samples from the bear. Brennan said any bear caught in the trap will be killed and its DNA tested to determine if it was the attacker.

Hansen, who has a ranch in the tiny rural community of Twin Oaks, near Caliente, was walking in heavy underbrush on her property Tuesday morning with her dogs when she was attacked, Dunning said.

Her English mastiff may have tried to defend her, Dunning speculated, because it suffered some scratches. An Irish wolfhound was unhurt.

“She had to rely on her dogs and her wits,” Dunning said. “She’s one tough woman.”

Dunning said the attack took place very close to a recent wildfire and speculated that the vast burn area may have pushed the bear into new territory.

“We just had 30,000 acres burn out here and those animals are looking for habitat,” he said.

The bear may have attacked to defend that new territory, he said. … [more]

17 Jul 2008, 10:24am
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Four men trapped, three burned on Motion fire

by Bill Gabbert, Wildfire Today [here]

Four men wearing camouflage clothing were found in the Motion Fire on the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in northern California after one of them made a call in Spanish to 911. The area was burning vigorously and several strike teams of engines, hand crews, and dozers were staged along roads preparing for a burning operation.

Of the four Hispanic males, three of them had burn injuries. Jose Alcazar Fernandez, 25, was flown to Mercy Medical Center with third degree burns and was later transferred to the UC Davis burn unit. A second adult and a juvenile were transferred by ground ambulance, then treated for first and second degree burns and smoke inhalation and released. The juvenile male was treated and released for minor burns. The treated adult and a fourth adult male were arrested on federal charges of being present in a closed area.

Law enforcement officers determined that the men were Mexican nationals unlawfully present in the United States. They claimed to have been hunting in the park but refused to say where their weapons were. A marijuana cultivation site had been under investigation nearby and fire overhead and suppression personnel had repeatedly been briefed over the previous few days as to the specific location of the site and the probability of armed suspects in the area.

Firefighting can be dangerous, and even more so around marijuana plantations. Be careful out there. The following statement was in an Incident Status Summary from the Soda Complex on July 13:

Armed Law Enforcement officers are needed to mitigate threats against fire crews and provide for safety on the fireline.

“Chopper Chick” is a helicopter pilot who, the last we heard, was assigned to the Mendocino Lightning Complex flying a Sikorsky 58T. She blogged about the marijuana on June 29 [here]:

The first few days I was mostly amazed at how many back yards grow “pot” in their yards. Pot up here is like rose gardens where I live. Every one’s got one. It’s pretty cool to see from above. Most of the dip sights (where I get water from for the bambi bucket) are sources of water for most of these little pot gardens.

For those who don’t know, it’s legal to grow pot with a doctors note up here. It’s all out in the open, fenced in according to law, completely visible to anyone who flies over. …

But she is referring to “legal” pot growing. The illegal growers too often defend their crops with firearms.

16 Jul 2008, 9:33am
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Kern County Fire Copter 408 Rescues Baby (video)

by Ret. Capt. Mike, Firefighter Blog, 07/15/08 [here]

Flash flooding near Lake Isabella in Kern County stranded people on their roofs as water slammed against homes last Sunday, July 13. In the video below the crew of Kern County Fire Department Helicopter 408 hover over a home where a family of three await rescue. The crew successfully rescues a baby before returning for the mother and father.

It’s hard to tell if the flash flooding was exacerbated by the Piute Fire in the Piute Mountains above Lake Isabella.

That same day a mud slide damaged dozens of homes in Independence California. The damage is attributed to a major fire in the hills above the town last year.

See video [here].

11 Jul 2008, 4:42pm
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Concow resident overcome by fire

(PLUMAS NEWS) The Butte County Sheriffs department has just released information of a fatality from the Camp Fire in the Concow area. [here]

From the Butte County Sheriff
July 11, 2008 11:45 a.m.

The Sheriff’s Office has confirmed the discovery of human remains in the Concow area. The remains were located in an evacuated area after the fires had destroyed the residence.

We are saddened by the loss of one of our community members but hope that providing this information will encourage people in evacuation areas to heed the warnings so that they and their families would be safe.

It is important to keep in mind that evacuation orders are not made lightly and done in the interest of the safety of the people in the area being evacuated.

11 Jul 2008, 12:50am
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House Passes FLAME Act - HR 5541

Imperial Valley News, 09 July 2008 [here]

Washington, D.C. - Congressman Raul M. Grijalva, Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, praised the passage of the “Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act” (FLAME Act) (HR. 5541). Rep. Grijalva is an original sponsor with Representative Rahall, Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, of the bill, which creates funds for federal agencies at the start of forest fire season.

“As our communities see longer and more intense fire seasons, this bill allows us to be proactive,” stated Grijalva. “Public land managers can have the resources for prevention and protection without destroying their day to day operational budget.”

The FLAME Act aims to prevent future catastrophic, wildland fires from crippling federal land management agency budgets by creating an emergency federal fund dedicated solely to fighting these devastating fires, separate from appropriated agency fire fighting funding. Over the last decade, the rapid increase in destructive forest fires across the United States has caused federal fire suppression costs to skyrocket– dramatically shifting spending priorities at the expense of other important Interior Department and Forest Service programs, especially programs that would reduce the intensity of fires and protect communities.

During hearings held by Chairman Grijalva in his public lands subcommittee, issues were raised such as the growing problem of wildland fire suppression funding the Bush Administration has consistently cut funding for hazardous fuels treatments to prevent wildland fires. The lack of funding for hazardous fuels treatments has resulted in many communities with NEPA-approved hazardous fuels projects not funded or implemented.

“As droughts increase throughout Southern Arizona, we must invest in a program that funds preventative measures,” stated Rep. Grijalva. “We cannot financially or environmentally afford to always be on the defensive when it comes to wildland fires.”

9 Jul 2008, 1:36pm
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Thousand flee fire: 50 homes burned

Protection burn likely contributes as Camp Fire rages into Concow area

By GREG WELTER, Chico Enterprise Record, 07/09/08 [here]

CONCOW — Fire officials said a procedure Monday night known as a “firing operation” may have hastened the march of the Camp Fire toward Concow, where several dozen structures were lost Tuesday.

Flames from the blaze also burned toward Paradise Tuesday, prompting an immediate threat evacuation for thousands of residents on the east side of town.

“We had to try something; the fire was going to get there anyway,” said Cal Fire-Butte County Capt. Scott McLean.

McLean explained a firing operation is like a backfire but is planned well ahead of time and done under the most favorable conditions as a way starve a wildfire of fuel.

Early on Monday night, he said weather in the fire area was conducive, and a wide bulldozer line had been cut down to bare earth south of the active edge of the Camp Fire.

Rim Road at the V-Line, both primarily logging roads, were shut down for the operation, which took place between 8 and 10 p.m.

McLean said things went as planned initially, but strong down-canyon winds from the northeast came up after midnight and appeared to carry embers from the fire far ahead of the planned burn.

He said humidity in the burn area suddenly plummeted from about 43 percent down to 21 percent.

“At that point, we were off to the races,” McLean said.

Concow was under an immediate threat evacuation order starting at 1:45 a.m. Tuesday. Some residents were reportedly leaving by 2 a.m.

By Tuesday evening approximately 50 structures were reported damaged or destroyed by fire in the Concow area.

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