IFPD battalion chief fights Northern California fires

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Fire crews on the Wallow Fire, one of several fires in the Salmon August Complex, build fire lines in steep terrain. This was the typical topography in which the fire crews had to work. This photo was taken on Sept. 2.
Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service

LaMont spent nearly three weeks in Klamath back country stopping fire

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts. The Salmon August Complex burned from July into August. Several local firefighters were part of the thousands who fought the fire during the late summer.

Firefighters focus on three conditions when they are battling a fire, especially a large fire. The fire’s size, rate of spread, and intensity are largely governed by these three variables — fuels, weather and topography.

What can burn and how rapidly it will burn are based on the fuels. Weather addresses the obvious, such as wind speed, temperature, but also relative humidity and forecasts. Topography affects the direction and also rate of spread.

This summer, before the catastrophic fires in Sonoma and Napa, there were other larger and more dangerous fires in Northern California. This complex was in very steep back county burning very dry fuels and shifting winds.

Idyllwild Fire Battalion Chief Mark LaMont was intimately involved in fighting the Salmon August Complex Fire, which burned 65,000 acres in or near the Klamath National Forest. The Salmon August Complex was actually a group of fires that initially began in July from a lightning strike. Most of the acreage burning was deep in forest. However, in early August, more lightning strikes ignited several other fires in the Klamath and they began burning vigorously.

By Aug. 13, the KNF leadership combined seven single fires into the Complex and requested assistance from a National Incident Management team. Team 2 from California was the available team and it was deployed north. This included LaMont, who only had hours to get to the forest, assess the situation and organize his units to combat the growing conflagration.

The Forest Service has nearly 50 Type 1 and Type 2 Incident Management teams. Southern California has three teams. The commander of Team 1 is Chris Fogle, battalion chief on the San Jacinto Ranger District, and the deputy is Norm Walker, former fire manager office for the ranger district and former chief of the Idyllwild Fire Department. LaMont is a member of this team, composed of about 80 members from fire agencies and departments throughout Southern California.

On Aug. 17, LaMont got the call to collect his gear and head north to the KNF. There was major fire awaiting him and his team.

Preparation has been learned and developed over years of training, and he stresses, “You don’t leave without anything you would need to exist for 21 days in the wilderness.” Most firefighting does not occur in the wilderness, but that is where the Salmon August Complex was burning. So, this aphorism applied readily for this call.

LaMont is one of a few division chiefs on the IC team. Twelve hours later, he arrived at the KNF. The IC team headquarters was located at the forest’s Happy Camp District Office in Scott Valley. The walls of the building’s conference room were covered with maps of the district identifying the fires’ locations.

For the next 12 hours, he and the team management had to accept the delegation from the NF, assess the situation, start to develop plans of attack — including initial resource orders, such as engines, aircraft, hotshots, and food for his team — understand the terrain in which they would be working and organize dozens of firefighters to battle a blazing forest.

As a division chief, LaMont was responsible for a specific area, Alpha area, of the whole fire. “We had that piece of dirt. Our responsibility was to come up with a tactical plan to safely suppress our piece of ground,” he said.

To impede and halt the spreading wildfire, the firefighting divisions have to create fuelbreaks. In the high country, where LaMont’s crews were assigned, engines would have a very difficult time getting to the fire site. So, bodies were the important asset. They would have to physically cut and burn fuelbreaks, with the intent of creating a zone with minimal fuel so that as the raging fire reaches this area, it will have no where to go and nothing rejuvenating its strength.

So, one of their tools was fire — fighting fire with fire. “It was one of the first tools I used as a tactical advantage to halt the fire’s progress, which was already running for four days.”

During the initial planning, LaMont learned that the Redding smoke jumper team, which was put into this area, already had to be evacuated. “They were overwhelmed right away,” he reported. “The fire’s activity increased substantially. It was running hundreds of acres per hour.”

LaMont and his firefighting contingent would be located in very steep terrain, during hot weather and low relative humidity. The fuel moisture was relatively nonexistent. “There was no resistance to the fire,” he summarized.

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