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When Lava Fire flared again, questions arose about Forest Service's abilities

by Julie Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle |

Firefighters took off their gloves about 24 hours after lightning set fire to a stand of conifers in a jagged lava field on Mount Shasta’s northwestern flank late last month. The crew touched rocks and soil to test for heat — they all felt cold. They thought they were done.

But about an hour later, the fire’s glow lit up the sky again. U.S. Forest Service officials speculate the blaze crept, undetected, along parched root systems that web underneath rocky fields and through lava tubes, remnants of volcanic eruptions tens of thousands of years ago.

The Lava Fire exploded over the next few days, burning across 25,000 acres, destroying a dozen homes and menacing thousands of residents in Weed, Lake Shastina, the town of Mount Shasta and other mountain communities.

California’s first major wildland blaze of the season also exposed distrust in forested communities about how the U.S. Forest Service battles wildfires. Some local residents criticized the Forest Service for bungling the opportunity to stop the fire before it grew large, while federal officials said extraordinary dry conditions kept the fire alive.

Siskiyou County Supervisor Michael Kobseff said he and others in the community are concerned that fires on federal forestland aren’t fought with proper regard for nearby communities. The fire burned toward Weed, coming within about 3 miles of town, and charred forests in and around rural communities along U.S. Highway 97.

“This should have been treated as a community fire and not a wilderness fire ... that was my concern and I voiced that aggressively,” Kobseff said. “I was told, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ The next day it was 4,000 acres.”

The Lava Fire ignited June 24 during a lighting storm. The fire was at 25,159 acres and 70 percent contained Friday — still burning along the tree line above 8,000 feet. Authorities estimated it would be fully contained Monday.

By day six of the Lave Fire, the Tennant Fire ignited 3 miles away, and Siskiyou County supervisors passed a resolution calling for the state fire agency, Cal Fire, to join the Forest Service to protect their towns.

The perception is that Cal Fire puts fires out while the Forest Service lets them burn.

“They manage fire and I want to put fires out,” state Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Redding, said of the Forest Service.

The difference is baked into the two agencies’ missions. The Forest Service is charged with managing national forests, including huge tracts of time in the Sierra Nevada, to sustain the health and productivity of these lands. Cal Fire isn’t a land manager but is responsible for fighting fire in most of the state’s forested communities — the wildland-urban interface — and its mission is to protect life and property.

But federal officials emphatically defend their tactics for protecting people and property from wildfires.

“As far as addressing that we let things burn — there’s absolutely no truth to that,” Shasta-Trinity National Forest spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman said. “We are under the direction that we will actively suppress every single fire we see this year.”

Historically, the Forest Service has taken a less-aggressive approach to suppressing wildfires in protected wildernesses than state firefighters have, but those fires have always been closely monitored, Freeman said. And that strategy is increasingly difficult to adhere to given this year’s extraordinary dry conditions and with more people living in the wildland-urban interface.

The Lava Fire made true predictions that California’s fire season would start sooner this year after paltry winter rains and early heat waves. The high elevation terrain where it burned is normally less hospitable to fire, but a lack of snow melt and warmer temperatures conspired with the Mount Shasta’s strong winds to whip the fire into an inferno.

Skiing Shasta on the Fourth of July is a local tradition, but this year its snowy peak is instead a rocky hulk.

“Anybody who lives in a mountain community is rightfully nervous right now,” Freeman said.

The Lava Fire started in a lava field near the Union Pacific Railroad line in the Hotlum area of Mount Shasta’s lower-elevation forest. The jagged terrain is so inhospitable to vehicles that the trains were halted so fire crews could drive on the tracks to get closer to the fire.

Cal Fire and Forest Service units responded together at first. They determined the fire was burning on federal lands, and state firefighters left once they were told the federal crews had enough resources on hand. Cal Fire crews headed out to help deal with other lightning-sparked fires that ignited in the passing storm.

Cal Fire spokesman Robert Foxworthy said the agency hews closely to written protocols for determining which agency is responsible for a fire.

“The public’s perception is the public’s perception,” Foxworthy said. “I know that by working with both entities we both fight fires. The forest service responded with a huge amount of resources.”

Freeman said federal forest officials are aware of the perception and determined to shake it. At a June 28 community meeting, Shasta-Trinity National Forest Fire Management Officer Todd Mack responded to residents’ complaints that the fire wasn’t monitored longer at the beginning so it could have been stopped before it burned out of control.

Mack apologized for leaving the fire, telling residents “I’ll take the heat for that ... I will own that.”

Freeman said the Forest Service intends to meet with local officials again to reinforce their determination to protect communities.

“It’s an unfortunate misconception that we need to work to try to change in the public eye,” Freeman said.

Nearly a week after the Lava Fire started, federal officials made the extraordinary decision to bring bulldozers into protected wilderness. Freeman said the fire was making a southwestern run and they needed to bulldoze fire breaks and cut the fire off before it burned toward the town of Mount Shasta and prime recreation areas on the mountain’s southern flank.

“It’s not a decision we’re going to make lightly,” Freeman said. “We did it because it was the right choice to cut it off to protect Mount Shasta. There are huge timber interests as well as recreational values on the Everitt Highway.”

Yet enough distrust remains in this part of the state, with its vast tracts of federal forestlands, that Siskiyou County leaders are considering drafting an ordinance to require Cal Fire and the Forest Service to work together.

It’s unclear whether a local law would have authority to direct state and federal agencies how to manage a fire. Freeman said those terms are negotiated every five years in a forest management agreement between the federal government and California.

But it sends a message.

Dahle said he believes federal policies have allowed forests to grow to dangerous densities and pose obstacles to the kind of aggressive tactics needed in this age of mega fires. He cited delayed efforts to develop plans for massive fire breaks in the Lassen area.

About 58% of California’s forests are on federal land. Another 3% are on state lands, and most of the rest is private.

Dahle, a seed farmer in Lassen County who represents 11 counties in the state’s northeastern corner, said that generations ago it was common wisdom that fires started in communities and that the forests needed protection — but “it’s totally the other way around now. Fires are starting in the forest and coming into our communities.”

Dahle, too, wants Cal Fire to be a leading agency on any wildland blaze threatening communities. He has greater trust in the state’s aggressive tactics and views the federal response as less protective. To him, the Lava Fire underscores that point.

“They left it unattended and it got away,” Dahle said. “It wasn’t out – that’s for sure.”