On June 24th a fire broke out southeast of Walker that was quickly named the Goodwin Fire (pretty much any fire bigger than a smoldering stump gets a name). The terrain was very thick with manzanita and chaparral at the lower elevations (about 5000 feet) and Ponderosa pine higher up. This was what the smoke looked like from my house around 4-5pm on June 24th.
At around 6pm on that first day I went out with one other firefighter to scout the fire.
There really wasn’t much to do or worry about for a couple of days in terms of an immediate threat but we knew very early that it was going to be declared a Type 1 incident, the most serious, because of how tricky the terrain was and the massive values at risk (houses). I got a call on Sunday from the Type 1 Incident Management Team (IMT) liaison on Sunday the 25th inviting me to a briefing Monday at 11am at the Incident Command Post (ICP). I worked with the same liaison in 2012 when the Gladiator threatened Walker, far less of a threat than the Goodwin Fire turned out to be. This first meeting was not worrying as the fire was a long way from threatening my area (Pine Flats and Turkey Creek on the other side of the fire were different stories). I had plenty of time to take pictures of fire apparatus at the ICP.
Before that first briefing on Monday I had gone several times to one spot that offered a great lookout of the fire, and Monday afternoon I took our County Supervisor out too look at the fire (local politician), I also took him out on Tuesday as well. This was what the smoke looked like from that viewpoint on Monday afternoon.
Tuesday’s 11am briefing was uneventful in terms of engendering much concern but on the way home the smoke had changed and I saw this on Walker Rd coming back, the smoke got much darker and was much more active.
I was on a day-job related conference call at 1pm on Tuesday and during the call I was getting notification that things were changing rapidly with the fire. With basic fire behavior, between 2:30pm and 4:30pm is when bad things are most likely to happen in a wildfire. This is about the time that things went wrong for the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2013. On Tuesday though, the Goodwin Fire blew up at about noon and raced north toward Mayer and burned across Highway 69. This was abhorrent fire behavior. As a result of the fire behavior on Tuesday, Walker was put on pre-evacuation. My wife evacuated that day with the dogs to avoid what might have been a traffic jam on Walker Rd.
This was what the smoke looked like on Wednesday morning June 28th. This was the first all hands on deck day at Walker Fire.
The response from our crew was epic. Wednesday the station house was a hot bed of activity with not just firefighters but also law enforcement (both sheriff deputies and Jeep Posse members). The pace was very fast, my phone, texts and email were all blowing up, we were trying to strategize our actions and then shortly after 11am the word came that Walker was evacuated which was very surprising.
There is a phrase related to being an EMT that it is their emergency, it is your job. If you are having a medical emergency you don’t want the person working on you to be emotionally involved. The fire threat made it both our emergency and our (volunteer) job. Much of the call/text flow was people outside of the emergency response realm just wanting to know what was going on. This made it very difficult to manage.
Given the evacuation, we had a bit of a dilemma. We had a dozen or so people at the station all with there personal vehicles. We had eight pieces of apparatus (or fleet) at the station. With imperfect information, we were not going to let our house burn down with our trucks inside. We moved five rigs down to Costco along with most of the personal vehicles. We kept one brush truck, our structure engine and a water tender as a mini-task force. A few of our guys baby sat the trucks at Costco all night. The Costco management gave us cases of water, tons of food and checked on the guys regularly. We can’t thank them enough for all they did for us.
That night, this is still Wednesday, I stayed in Walker with two other firefighters and our station boss. We all stayed at our own houses with the plan of calling each other if anyone smelled smoke.
Thursday a structure protection task force comprised of several engines and a hand crew showed up for the first of what turned out to be three days working in our area. They staged behind our station house.
Early in the day on Thursday I took the Division Supervisor and the Task Force Leader from the structure protection task force on a long drive through the area to help them formulate how they would work in the area. We then made a plan to also do structure protection such that we stayed out of their way, could get work done and maintain communications.
We did more structure protection work on Friday as did the task force. By Saturday they had less than a days work and so it was a short day for the task force in Walker. From there the fire started to wind down and the evacuation was lifted on Monday July 3rd.
Circling back to Friday, I was feeling good about the fire as I headed into the 11am briefing. The news from the briefing was not good. The Operations Section Chief said it was 50/50, maybe 60/40 that the fire could be stopped at what was a crucial spot and crucial time. Elsewhere I said this moment was Thursday but actually it was Friday. I felt sickened but we still had work to do. As the afternoon wore on however it was clear that the wind was working in our favor. Driving up later in the afternoon we saw great news. The black arrow was the trouble spot and no smoke was coming from there. The yellow arrow, that entire slope down was unburned and covered with retardant. The red arrow is pointing to the area creating the smoke but that was at least one ridge line away if not more. Big sign of relief.
This was one of the most amazing weeks of my life. It was stressful, it was challenging in terms of problem solving and my family being away. But it was also an opportunity to help the community, find out that our training is productive (I was confident in our training but we don’t have many chances to execute on this sort of scale) and be a part of an incredible chapter in our department’s history. In terms of being a manager of people it was awesome see our department succeed when things were hitting the fan. I try very hard to put people in spots where they can succeed and while not infallible it was very fulfilling to see and be a part of far more successes on this incident than problems.