Local volunteer firefighters from around Mono County responded to the Round Fire on Friday Feb. 6. As many of their own homes were endangered, volunteers worked throughout the night and over the weekend, as the fire moved north of Round Valley, around Paradise and into Swall Meadows, burning 40 structures.
One Wheeler Crest firefighter, Bob Sach, lost his home in the blaze. As County Supervisor Fred Stump said at a public meeting held at the Round Valley School on Saturday night, area firefighters did not go freelancing about to save their own homes – Sach being a prime example.
Jim Hess, retired Bishop High Teacher and resident of Swall Meadows for 30 years, responded to the initial fire at the Talbot Ranch as part of the Wheeler Crest Volunteer Fire Department around 2 p.m.
“The initial call was for Round Valley which is at least 10 miles from my house at least, so I really didn’t think about my home,” Hess said.
When the 3 engines and roughly 8 firefighters arrived at Talbot Ranch, “The winds were so bad that when we got out of our engines, my glasses flew off with my helmet,” Hess said. “We were trying to dampen around the house but a truck went up there and bales of hay went up. Once that started, there’s no amount of water that would put it out… but we were able to save that house.”
At that point, the fire began traveling north. “We could see spot fires going in front of us and we tried to stop it but we couldn’t. We chased those damn spot fires down the highway for at least a couple of miles. We’d shovel dirt on it but fires were just boom boom boom everywhere,” Hess said. “You’re kind of on your own with your own instincts. You do what you can with what you have. It got past us, and there was no way we could stop it.”
As Hess and his crew went into Paradise to get more water, the fire circled around them, getting in front of them. “We had to go through walls of fire to get into Paradise. All you see is flames and the road,” he said. Throughout the night, Hess was surrounded four other times.
Once in Paradise, “there were a lot of tactical things going on. We were doing backfiring, we were doing structure protection and we were assigned to a house that was on fire,” he said. Although the crew was unable to save that house, they did prevent the surrounding houses from catching on fire.
And then the wind shifted. “I think Paradise was saved by the change of wind. It skirted to the west of Paradise, up towards the foothill and that’s where the impetus got going,” Hess said. “It was unstoppable [with] 100 mile per hour winds and about 3 percent humidity, which is good for combustion and not for fire suppression.”
Fred Stump, District 2 Supervisor and volunteer section chief with the Long Valley Fire Department said the fire made it’s way up to Swall Meadows from Paradise through the small drainage to the west of the community. “In essence it just made a hard right turn into the community and then it made a hard left turn into the rest of the community,” Stump said.
After putting out a small fire that started at the end of the Mammoth Airport runway, Long Valley Firefighters responded to Swall Meadows. Engineer Tyler Haakana and crew started soaking houses in lower Swall Meadows, while the fire was still in Paradise. “It came up so fast,” he said about the firestorm. As Haakana was driving away from the last house they were able to soak, “I looked in the rearview mirror and there were flames at my bumper,” he said.
Haakana said he has seen similar fire behavior in Lone Pine and Big Pine, but never around residential areas. “It was very unpredictable and the wind kept shifting. One moment, the fire would be blowing up the hill and all of a sudden it would shift and blow right in your face,” he said.
Hess and his crew tried putting the flames out from the side, but at times they had to “wait until the firestorm went through,” before attempting to put out flaming structures. “You wait until the fire goes past you and then you save what you can. Sometimes it’s too late. When the embers blow into the attic it’s the kiss of death,” he said.
“I’ve talked and heard a lot of very experienced firemen up there who said it’s the worst kind of explosive fire they’ve ever seen with so much energy and strength,” Hess continued.
Haakana described the fire as a “river of sparks” that would jump 100 yards to another structure regardless of defensible space or if there was anything to burn in the middle of it at all. “At times it was like driving in a snowstorm but instead of snowflakes it was sparks.”
Dave Melchoir, Long Valley Firefighter, was driving the water tender (specialized fire truck used to draft water from hydrants, streams and other water sources) and doing structural protection when the winds changed again.
“The fire went up Wheeler Crest, went across and then the wind changed and we had to evacuate. There was nothing anybody could do,” Melchoir said. “We couldn’t see five feet in front of us. The flames were too big and the smoke was covering the roads. We were navigating by snow stakes and mailboxes. Luckily we knew the roads enough and we got out of there.”
“It was utter chaos. If we bottlenecked up or went off the road, everybody behind us would perish. So that’s going through your head. And then we were having embers coming into our cab with smoke with very limited visibility,” Melchoir continued.
At that point, all firefighters were evacuated. “You couldn’t see. You couldn’t operate the equipment. We had to retreat until the fire was tenable. In this case, tenable means you’ll push the limits until the last possible moment,” Stump said.
Hess and crew were driving through walls of fire after they were ordered out. At one point it was so bad that the rigs had to stop and start backing up before the first rig went through the flames and radioed the others to follow. Two other crewmembers in Hess’s rig just looked at their house as the engine roared past to safety.
“Fire Departments in both Paradise and Wheeler Crest are volunteer departments. They are working in their own communities, with their houses threatened and they stayed on task and weren’t diverted. That’s impressive to see for a group of volunteers,” Stump said. In the end, Hess, along with his fellow crewmembers did not lose their homes.
Firefighters waited on Lower Rock Creek Road for more than an hour until getting the okay to return to the community.
“As we came back in, all the power lines were down across the roads so we had to go around the fire station and take a dirt road back in. Any house that we saw that was on fire, we’d stop and start doing structure protection as much as we could do,” Melchoir said. Some burning material “was like trick birthday candles” and would keep reigniting whereas the wood “you could put out and it would stay out,”
Stump, the structure protection supervisor, said some “structures sustained damage from protection operations” but given the circumstances, some repair work is better than rebuilding. “It’s like an operation. If you have a ruptured appendix you want it out,” he said.
Gary Wright, resident of Swall Meadows for 20 years, former volunteer fire fighter and current Operations Manager for the Wheeler Crest Community Service Water District, was working when the fire started and wasn’t able to go to his home.
Wright said the fire moved underneath his deck and began to burn the timbers. Firefighters cut the boards off the top, detached the burning section and dragged it away from the rest of the structure, putting out the flames and saving his house, which only sustained some smoke and ash damage.
“Whoever was doing structure protection did a great job. I’d like to find out who they are so I can buy them beers,” Wright told the Sheet Tuesday.
Wright also left his keys in a truck he had left at his residence, and the firefighters “were on top of it,” he said. His truck was moved down to the road and also escaped damage.
“Some [houses] where burnt to the ground and there was nothing left,” Haakana said. “As I was driving down the road, if there were flames coming out of the attic we had to leave it and move to the house next door.”
“As hard and as sad as it was, we were trying to make a judgment call on which houses to save and which houses to leave,” he continued. “A lot of homes were saved and that’s squarely on the shoulders of Fred Stump. There aren’t many Supervisors who would have balls of fire enveloping their vehicles while they’re trying to save homes of people in their district.”
Both Haakana and Melchoir attributed their success and safety to the knowledge and experience of Stump. “He did everything he could but didn’t let the crews endanger their lives.”
Stump has been fighting fires throughout California since 1977 and was the Long Valley Chief before he was elected District 2 Supervisor. “This was as nasty as fire behavior conditions as I’ve ever witnessed,” he said. With the “erratic and explosive” nature of the fire, he classified the Round Fire in the top five worst fires he’s ever been involved with.
Because of the “extremity of the fire behavior, humans and machines can only combat the conditions up to a certain point,” Stump said. “It doesn’t mean that those who in engage in those activities don’t feel the loss of [every home].”
“For thirty years, we’ve talked about escape routes, fire protection, attacks, safety zones, all these things because [Swall Meadows] only has one outlet. We have to have a good plan and we did. But you just can’t control something as outrageous as [the Round Fire]. You can’t,” Hess said.
Hess worked throughout the weekend, taking Monday off, and returning for a full shift on Tuesday. Many other volunteer firefighters also worked non-stop throughout the Round Fire.
Stump went back to his role as Supervisor on Monday, saying, “the initial incident is winding down…but now the hard work really begins.”