About 50 members of the Coffee Creek and Trinity Center community came out Monday night to the Trinity Center School to hear the latest update on the River Complex fires and area evacuation statuses from California Incident Management Team 13, in charge of the River Complex. With spot fires, wind and lifting of smoke predicted, fire officials said the following 36 hours into Wednesday will host extreme fire conditions.
Operations Chief Matt Ahern opened by saying there were many moving parts on the River Complex at that moment.
He said the massive columns of smoke seen over the area were the result of rapid extreme fire growth on the northeast edge caused by the smoke lifting.
“It’s spotting,” he said. “Spot fires are off the main edge, two miles out ahead of itself, so it is up to the Fox fire scar.” He said crews are in the area creating the fire’s primary line.
“Fire has rapidly approached that line,” he said, “and they are trying their hardest, as we speak, in there working to backfire and put in hose lines to defend that piece of ground. The probability of success on that line is mid to low so we are coming up with backup plans. He said the team has contingency lines to the north, and is working with the sheriff in Siskiyou County to possibly evacuate the town of Callahan.
“Callahan is in evacuation warning and is rapidly approaching an evacuation order,” he said.
Heavily vegetated slopes will combine with a southwest wind and make the fire very hard to keep up with, he said.
“When the fire’s spotting two miles ahead of itself, these spots are hitting the ground and rapidly growing,” he said. “Right now we are in a critical, critical period and it’s going to get worse for the next 36 hours.”
As for Coffee Creek, Ahearn said crews have put in a tremendous amount of work and pushing pilots into the most extreme conditions.
“We have some major challenges ahead of us also,” he said, noting that crews have been successful in holding the fire at Sawyers Bar Road. “But we do have some heat on the northwest corner interior, no threat to the line.”
Ahearn said crews have been working extremely hard over the last week to 10 days to keep the fire south of Cecilville Road and have tied it into lines at Plumber Creek.
“Which is huge,” he said. “It’s our backdoor to where we have no fire history. Now what we need to do is hold it. We need to allow the heavy material to burn down, we need to keep it from getting into the trees, we need to prevent spot fires, and we’re going to soak up some resources to button that up over the next 48 hours.”
Ahearn said since the fire reached a trigger point to the east, an evacuation warning was issued for Zone 3, which includes the Coffee Creek area. He said the team had received a lot of human and equipment resources recently but crews will need to catch up with the increased fire activity.
He said assessment teams have been in areas determining which structures could be defended against fire and which could not. He said some homes in there would not be defendable, but crews will stand by to defend the ones that are. However, he said it may come down to point protection where crews defend lives and some property while letting the fire pass through.
Klamath District Ranger Ruth D’ Amico said while everyone is suffering a form of fire burnout, crews continue to give it all to keep communities safe. She thanked Coffee Creek and Trinity Center volunteer fire departments for their assistance on the ground, with communication and setting up the community meetings.
She said the spike camp will have to expand to the school’s baseball field to allow for better COVID distancing, since the crews have outgrown their current location.
Most in attendance had questions about particular areas and highways where they reside and travel. It was disclosed the Sheriff’s Office, Highway Patrol and Caltrans have agreed that Highway 3 should remain open if at all possible to allow traffic to move.
Asked if the Monument fire will merge with the south end of the River Complex, Ahearn called it “a high probability.” He said teams don’t want that to happen and he was hoping for a season-ending rainstorm soon.
One attendee said he and others plan to stay and defend their properties if necessary, and asked who they should contact to remove stands of dead Ponderosa Pine trees about 50 feet from their homes. Incident Commander Mike Wakowski didn’t mince words in saying it would be a bad idea.
“I’ve never met anyone, in 43 years of doing this, who said they were glad they stayed with their structures,” he said, noting that he has picked people out of their swimming pools next to burning houses. Wakowski asserted that people should not stay to protect material things but get out when told.
“We care about you,” he said, “but if we have to go in and save you, it takes away from fire suppression somewhere else and we may lose even more houses.”
Wakowski said later that in his 43 years of experience, he has not seen such fire movement, but added that crews are meeting it. He added that in his years, he has never been on a fire that didn’t go out. He assured the crowd that this one will too, but will be a battle of resources against weather and seasons.
Leave or stay
Sheriff Tim Saxon arrived late, saying he had just come from evacuating the Coffee Creek area. He said that some left and some stayed. He said those who stay with their properties need to stay with them and not wander around inside the evacuation zones or interfere with fire personnel.
“You can stay, but once you leave, you are out for the duration,” he said, noting that one can leave anytime.
Saxon said he did not expect to have to issue an evacuation order in the area but changes warranted it. He said a backfiring operation was ordered near the area that day and said if something were to have gone wrong, it would have meant evacuating the area in the middle of the night. He said he felt it would be a “better safe than sorry” situation and issued the order.