Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fire on the Mountain

Camp Connell, Ca -- When the breeze picks up in the mornings, the smoke drifts through the top of the trees and creates a mild haze. You can smell the smoke, even though the fire is a dozen or so miles away.
The helicopter base for dropping fire retardents was relocated last week to the edge of a subdivision part-way down the mountain, apparently to avoid the congestion created by so many aircraft, fixed wing and helicopters, operating out of the base a few miles further south. They also have access to a pond to mix with retardents, and water is always at a premium around here.
Officially, we are watching the Mount Knight Fire, the sort of blaze Californians live with every summer and fall. All over the West this scene occurs again and again.
For thousands of people, this just another summer day in the mountains.
This fire is probably the most expensive one you have never heard of. Within a day or two the cost to fight this fire will probably top $10 million. More than one thousand fire fighters and hundreds of items of expensive equipment are involved in keeping the fire contained. Add up a thousand people working long shifts for ten days around the clock, and you get a big bill.
This particular fire has been burning for more than a week, tucked deep into a canyon above the South Fork of the Stanislaus River. As the crow flies, it is probably about 14 miles from our home, and about ten miles from the home of our daughter Ruth and her family.
We are not scared, but we watch it closely. We see and hear the helicopters when we travel up and down the highway to the grocery store, or church. We watch every day.
Because it is in a remote area, no homes have been destroyed and the big newspapers in the state rarely mention it. Television stations dropped the coverage after the first day or two: all the video shots look alike, and it was hard for folks not living close by to get excited.
So far, three fire fighters have been injured, apparently not too seriously.
The fire is slowly coming under control. As of today, it is 50% "contained" which means the borders on about half the fire are under control. More than 5,000 acres have burned, and the total will grow as more back-fires are set to remove fuel from the path of the blaze.
Further south, a new fire was triggered by lightening in Yosemite National Park. Because it is in the park, the are watching that fire closely but not fighting it.
The basic reason so much money and effort is being spent to fight the Mt. Knight Fire is because the population has spread from the coast and valleys into the mountains. Less than ten miles from the fire there are hundreds of cabins, businesses, and luxury homes.
One bad day, with high winds and low humidity, and this relatively quiet fire in the California mountains could explode. Just to the south is the town of Sonora, a major retirement and recreation region packed with people. Just north is the Gold Rush town of Murphys, and closer to us, the retirement/tourist town of Arnold.
It's a quandry.
If nature had its way, a fire would sweep through the area every 20 years or so, thin the underbrush, and make the forest a better place.
But because we fought fires vigorously for a century, and allowed the underbrush to thicken unnaturally, fires are harder and harder to control.
Oh yes: and because we live nearby, fire fighters in general and the How Shot crews in particular, are our local heroes.
So we are not afraid of forest fires any more than we are of earthquakes, or serial killers, or pile-ups on the freeway. Just cautious. We have a plan, and review it every summer.
It is time for a review.

The site below as a map and details of this fire:

As of Thursday morning, the number of fire fighters is dropping as the containment numbers rise, and officials say the fire is essentially under control.

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