WILLITS, 9/12/20 — In a catastrophic fire season, during which we’ve seen an area equivalent to the state of Connecticut burn in California, the Oak Fire stands out as a triumph for firefighters — as a demonstration of what Cal Fires mighty air arsenal and the state of California’s finely tuned mutual aid system allow for.
That fire, which ignited on labor day, and has burned 1100 acres, is now 50% contained, with all areas repopulated, except one neighborhood where the fire began. Five major structures have been confirmed destroyed (likely homes), and another 20 smaller structures (likely outbuildings and sheds) were also burned down. As of yesterday evening, 91 people remained displaced. No one was injured or killed.
With winds down, and humidity up, firefighters are still engaged on extensive mop up operations, to ensure that a future weather event won’t reignite embers, but favorable conditions have helped firefighters stop this fire at what’s now considered a relatively modest size. Secondary line some distance from the fire exists to the south to protect Brooktrails should the fire spread south, while firefighters are going direct on the fire-line today to try to extinguish hotspots. Firefighters have fully contained the fire along U.S. Route 101, and along the western edge of the fire.
Yesterday, during a special emergency session, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors ratified the declaration of a state of emergency for Mendocino County due to the Oak Fire and August Complex. At that meeting Sheriff Matt Kendall said of the Oak Fire, “It could have been a lot worse.”
In the early hours of the fire things were touch and go. As residents of Brooktrails quickly packed their life’s belongings into cars and fled down the single-access Sherwood Road, residents of Brooktrails and Laytonville watched an ominous smoke plume grow, drift south, and eventually cover the Little Lake Valley.
Of course, an awareness of wildfire and some preparedness for evacuation has become a basic part of living in Northern California. As Kendall noted at that same meeting, “That was probably the smoothest evacuation that I have ever seen.” He added that people were well prepared, and that, “obviously [that] saved some lives in Mendocino County.”
Because of Brooktrails’s unique development, built into a forest with a single road in and out, an uncontrolled wildfire in the community has long been a nightmare scenario for the county and Cal Fire. And this particular fire began in an especially rugged and difficult to access corner of the subdivision, near 3rd Gate Road. Indeed, while some kind of rudimentary control lines were built early on, and massive retardant drops were made, in the first couple days, the steep terrain, falling trees, hinder firefighter’s ability to “go direct” on the fire.
Instead, in the first hours of the fire aircraft from across the state responded to Brooktrails to drop retardant, including the 747 supertanker “VLAT,” and other “LAT” such as a C-130 Hercules. In total 21 aircraft of different kinds made drops on the fire in the first 48 hours.
Also in those first minutes, the mutual-aid system went into effect, and soon firefighters from volunteer and professional departments across the county were responding to the fire. And in this situation the combination of Cal Fire’s infrastructural might, local volunteers on the ground, and many private contractors driving bulldozers and even piloting aircraft, succeeded in stopping the fire before the long feared worst case scenarios came true.
Here is Cal Fire’s update for today:Oak_IU_9.12_AM.01