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Smoke Jumpers fight lightning fires

by Patric Hedlund and Gary Meyer |

Skies exploded with crashing thunder and strobing lightning as a tropical storm cell pounded the western end of the Mountain Communities with heavy rains Saturday, Aug. 11. Flooding water gushed down streets in Pine Mountain.

“I counted to four when I heard the thunder,” said Jillian Otash, 10 “and then the lightning flashed—so I knew it was close!” She was right. A bolt of fire hit a power transformer on Matterhorn Drive at 4:57 p.m., exactly when electricity went out at Barbara Ellmore’s home, just one block from where Jillian was visiting. Kern County Fire Station 58 rushed to the scene, along with a U.S. Forest Service patrol.

Lightning also hit the dry fuels in surrounding mountains. By Sunday smoke was curling up from two lightning fires on Mount Abel, with another on Sawmill Mountain.

Helicopters filled the sky. Smoke jumpers from Redding were flown in. The U.S. Forest Service, Ventura County and Santa Barbara County Fire Departments fought from the start with aircraft.

“We have such extreme fire danger right now because everything is so dry,” said Andrew Madsen, speaking for the Los Padres National Forest. “They decided to attack it aggressively. The smoke jumpers were available, so we brought them in. Ventura County gave tremendous assistance with helicopters on the first day. They were worried about these fires being right above Pine Mountain.”

The Point fire on Mt. Abel was visible from the Pine Mountain clubhouse, but very difficult to reach, said Los Padres National Forest Battalion Chief John Abell, with the Mt. Pinos Ranger District. The LPNF Santa Lucia Crew 7 worked that fire. The other Mt. Abel blaze, the Mesa fire, was on the south side of the mountain. The Sawmill fire was remote in a rocky area tough for ground crews to access. Smoke jumpers launched from a fixed-wing aircraft. Water drops with S2 (type 3) air tankers were made, Abell said, with Ventura County helicopter 6 assisting engines and hand crews.

The Pine Mountain community itself went about its business, reassured by the decisions they saw officials making and happy to have the heavy rains on the forest.

People grabbed cameras as they went out for walks or hit the golf course, taking photos of helicopters sipping water from Fern’s Lake.