REDDING — An hour after sunrise Monday, as hundreds of firefighters prepared for their next 24-hour shift on the front lines of one of California’s most destructive wildfires, they removed their hats and bowed their heads to remember their latest fallen colleague.
A moment of silence was about all they had before suiting up at the fairgrounds to try to control the Carr Fire that had already burned nearly 104,000 acres in Shasta County over the past week, and destroyed more than 1,100 structures, including 818 homes. Over the past two and a half weeks, two firefighters have died in the Carr fire and two others — including an 82-year-old bulldozer operator — died in the Ferguson Fire in Yosemite, an unprecedented number of fatalities so early in the fire season.
“I want you to take care of yourself,” Mike Ming, who leads Cal Fire’s employee support services program, told the gathering. “Take care of your crews. Take care of your families. Just know that we’re all hoping, and I’m sure you’re all hoping, that you’re going to return home, happy and healthy, to your families when this thing’s all over.”
As 17 wildfires rage across California, stretching Cal Fire resources, the men and women battling the flames are doing so while also reckoning with their own grief and unease as the firefighter fatality count ticks up to an alarming height.
Four firefighter deaths so far this year is more than were killed in California wildfires in all of 2017, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox said.
It’s taking a toll.
“We’re battling two fronts — we’re battling the fire, but we’re also kind of battling this mourning that we’re as firefighters processing as well,” Cox said. “It’s not easy. It’s by no means easy. But we do what we do in everybody’s honor who put their lives out there for us.”
The death count is growing partly because this year’s fires have been larger, more destructive and more frequent, Cox said. That’s caused by the merging of several factors, he said: extreme weather — hotter days and hotter nights — and increased development in rural areas, coupled with a heat wave and wind. The Carr fire was driven by an unusual “fire vortex” or “fire tornado” that generated its own devastating weather and path of destruction.
Along with the firefighters, four Shasta County residents also have been killed, including a 70-year-old woman and her two great-grandchildren and someone who was found in an evacuated home. Some 19 people are still missing, down from 48, and officials say it’s possible they could have left their cell phones behind and can’t be reached by concerned relatives or are in shelters.
On Monday, cooler temperatures and calmer winds were good news for firefighters who by evening had the Carr fire 23 percent contained. Cal Fire sent 14 helicopters to drop water on the blaze.
“It means that hopefully the fire activity will be not as great as it was in the first few days of the fire, where you saw the fire tornado,” Cal Fire public information officer Daniel Potter said in an interview after the briefing, “because the winds won’t be there so it will be a less productive fire, so we can get more containment done faster.”
Firefighters on Monday were focused on keeping the blaze out of the towns of Lewiston to the northwest and Igo to the south. Another incentive to keep the fire from moving south — winds tend to pick up in that region, and can routinely reach speeds of 30 mph.
“We’ve been in really bad spots,” Cal Fire incident commander Brett Gouvea said Monday, but “things are getting better.”
The four firefighter deaths came with intense heat in Northern California. Brian Hughes, 33 of Hawaii, was struck and killed by a falling tree while fighting the Ferguson Fire on Sunday. At the same fire July 14, Braden Varney, 36, was killed when his bulldozer rolled over.
At the Carr fire, Jeremy Stoke, 37, a fire inspector with the Redding Fire Department, was killed. In a grim reminder of firefighters’ work ethic, Stoke’s funeral is being postponed until his colleagues, still battling the blaze, can attend.
Stoke was out in his truck checking access roads, doing evacuations, making sure firefighters were all right, Redding Deputy Fire Chief Cullen Kreider said Monday. “We were all out on the fire line that night and when that happened early that morning we were just in disbelief,” he said. “We’re still trying to fight the fire and at the same time grieve for our brother, so it’s been really tough.”
Stoke was a “great guy, very outgoing, a big guy, boisterous and always up for a good time,” he said. The night he died, “he was out there with us just trying to protect the community.”
Don Smith, an 82-year-old bulldozer operator and private contractor from Pollock Pines, also was killed in the Carr Fire, when he was overrun Friday by the flames east of Whiskeytown Lake. His age raised concerns about whether any other health issues could have been contributing factors.
“Most people aren’t out there operating dozers and fighting fire at that age,” said Cliff Allen, president of Cal Fire Local 2881, the union that represents Cal Fire employees, “so it’s pretty unusual.”
A coroner is investigating the death of Smith, a contractor with Robert Dominikus General Engineering, to determine if other factors were involved.
Sixty firefighters died on duty last year, according to the National Fire Protection Association’s annual report. Of those, more than half of the firefighters over age 40 succumbed to heart attacks or other cardiac events. The rate for firefighters age 60 and over was 2.5 times the average.
Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said Monday there is no mandatory retirement age for contractors and no physical tests they must perform. It’s up to each contractor to ensure their employees’ fitness, she said.
In Shasta County, dozens of roadways remain closed, including large portions of state Highway 299 and Highway 273. Another 5,012 structures remained in harm’s way, Cal Fire said.
The Ferguson Fire near Yosemite, burning for more than two weeks, has claimed 56,659 acres and is 30 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.
The Ranch and River fires, together dubbed the Mendocino Complex fires, began in Mendocino County and have since crossed into Lake County. Together, the two fires have scorched 56,000 acres.
At the Carr fire command post, firefighters wore black bands of mourning over their badges. “It’s very sobering,” Captain Chris Auby of the Redwood City Fire Department said, “and it makes you realize that this is a dangerous job and that there’s a lot of risks.”
In the meantime, firefighters are battling more than a dozen fires throughout the state with limited resources. Cal Fire had 3,388 first responders fighting the Carr fire on Monday, with more crews on the way — some coming from as far as Florida.
The intense need for personnel has forced Cal Fire to rethink its typical strategies, said Alameda County Fire Captain Sam Lobese. Typically he responds to fires with a team of firefighters from his county. But on Sunday, he found himself working with people from St. Helena, Forestville and American Canyon.
“What’s unique about what you see here — they call it a rainbow strike team because we’re from different counties,” Lobese said. “And when you see that, that means things are stretched really thin in California. They’re just trying to get rigs from any fire department, put them together, go. Homes are burning, go.”
In the midst of weeks-long stretches of 24-hour shifts, firefighters don’t have much time to reflect on the risks, or to grieve.
But their efforts are appreciated. At a community meeting at the Redding Civic Auditorium on Monday afternoon, the crowd gave them a standing ovation.