Battle against California fires is waged from Grass Valley command center

phecht@sacbee.comAugust 30, 2013 

On Aug. 17, as the first calls for assistance came in from a fire 150 miles away near Yosemite, the ridgetop Interagency Command Center in Grass Valley was already at full throttle.

A shared room for tactical supervisors of the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and the state Office of Emergency Services was directing materiel to the American fire near Foresthill, then just seven days old.

Outside, Grumman S-2 air tankers - dubbed "pink bellies" for the color of the fire retardant they drop - were taking off from the Grass Valley Air Attack Base. They were flying sorties over the Foresthill area's deep forest canyons, where the stubborn fire was soon to top 26,000 acres.

Suddenly, this new Rim fire was burning in treacherous terrain to the south in the Stanislaus National Forest. Within 24 hours, thunderclouds triggered vicious downdrafts, endangering firefighters and fanning a massive blaze toward the communities of Groveland, Tuolumne City and Pine Mountain.

"On Day Three, it tripled in size," said Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff in Grass Valley. "Then it doubled and doubled again in each of the next two days."

The Yosemite-region fire, destined to become one of the largest in state history at more than 200,000 acres, soon required logistical support from the already-taxed tactical center in Nevada County and other major regional fire command outposts across California.

Together, the distant resource centers for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, the U.S. Forest Services and hundreds of local fire agencies would combine to dispatch nearly 5,000 firefighters, hundreds of trucks and dozers and aerial support.

Since it started, the Rim fire has exceeded $48 million in state and federal firefighting costs. Overall, California has spent $63.5 million on wildfires since July 1.

The activity at the Interagency Command Center only underscored the operation's far-reaching demands.

Aside from the American fire, the command was handling other regional wildfires and emergency dispatch calls in the Tahoe National Forest and numerous Northern California counties.

With state Office of Emergency Services dispatchers fielding mutual-aid requests, the Interagency Command Center was summoning five-engine "strike teams" from Sacramento County, the Tahoe Basin, Calaveras County and Yolo County to the Yosemite blaze.

It was around that time that Cal Fire Capt. Travis Bowersox, the command dispatch supervisor, popped his first two Advil.

"We had a couple of days where it was nonstop," Bowersox said. "You were playing the chessboard, moving stuff around. ... Everybody is doing something. It is organized chaos."

On a large map, supervisors moved colored magnets - red for fire engine strike teams, green for hand crews, yellow for bulldozer units - to mark, county by county, where resources were being deployed.

In the same room, one dispatcher was sending Nevada County fire units to the fire in Foresthill and then on to another blaze in Sierra County. Another dispatcher was directing 28 local fire agencies responding to unrelated spot fires or emergency calls in Nevada, Yuba, Placer and Plumas counties.

Elsewhere Forest Service dispatchers were redirecting federal resources from the American River fire to Yosemite.

And Thomas Smith, Cal Fire's Grass Valley Air Attack Base manager, was "talking to a little bit of everyone on multiple frequencies."

Smith would work 21 straight days on the American and Rim fires and other incidents. Inside the multi-agency command center, he used a microwave radio system to communicate with Cal Fire's "North Ops" in Redding and "South Ops" in Riverside to help direct attack aircraft from a dozen agency locations in California.

When he wasn't on the microwave system indoors, he was outside on the Grass Valley airstrip, communicating with incoming and outgoing pilots on a hand-held radio.

One of those was Cal Fire air tactical pilot Rick Haagenson. For days, he had been low-flying his Bronco OV-10 twin-turboprop to lead air tankers dropping retardant in canyons near Foresthill for the American fire.

In little time, Haagenson was flying into deep-forested ravines near Yosemite, laying out a stream of white smoke to enable tanker planes that followed him in to track the drifting wind and better target retardant drops on the Rim fire.

"It's fun to work with the tankers getting the retardant on the fire, because the guys on the ground really appreciate it," Haagenson said.

From the rear seat of Haagenson's aircraft, Cal Fire Capt. Curt Chamberlain of the Grass Valley command center was handling still more logistics. He was communicating with firefighters below - logging reports from those battling the flames on needed equipment, reinforcements, water or food.

"Even the military gets impressed," Chamberlain said, "with how we can mobilize for a wildfire."

Since May 1, Cal Fire and Forest Service tankers at the Grass Valley Air Attack Base have dumped more than 260,000 gallons of retardant on wildfires in the state.

Haagenson's son, Trevor Haagenson, who also flies F-16 fighter jets for the California Air National Guard, has been pressed into duty as a seasonal pilot for Cal Fire.

In one seven-hour shift over the American fire, Trevor Haagenson chased his father's lead plane in his Grumman S-2 tanker, dropping 14 loads of fire retardant until his aircraft's belly was glistening in pink.

From the air, Trevor Haagenson said he could see "hot shot" hand crews dispatched out of Grass Valley "cutting a really impressive firebreak on the ground" with shovels and picks.

Smith, the Grass Valley Air Base manager, directed the Haagensons and other aerial crews onto the Rim fire. Amid the peak wildfire season, he says, demands for firefighting aircraft, manpower and pink showers of flame retardant will surely persist.

"Everybody knows what they sign up for on this job," Smith said. "We work from 8 a.m. (when the first flights take off) until the last tankers come home - and their bellies are washed."

Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

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