Camp Fire: The stand at Rattlesnake Flats: A sudden change of wind leaves two firefighter inmates, captain facing wall of flame
Cal Fire report compares Paradise conflagration to WWII’s Operation Gomorrah
|A Cal Fire graphic details what happened when the Camp Fire burned over a fire captain and two inmate firefighters on Nov. 8. (Cal Fire)|
PARADISE — By the early afternoon of Nov. 8, the Camp Fire had consumed Paradise and was headed southwest toward Chico and Oroville.
A hand strike team of Cal Fire firefighters and California prison inmates was sent to the front lines. They had to help protect Butte College in Oroville and the heavily populated areas nearby.
Two teams headed up Clark Road and began scouting areas to set back fires, to try and burn up fuel so the incoming fiery beast had nothing left to devour.
As they stood along Rattlesnake Flats Road — an undulating, one-lane dirt farm road flanked by barbed wire fences — the favorable winds suddenly switched directions and picked up velocity. The fire had them trapped. Two inmates and a fire captain would be seriously burned in the lightning quick event, but survive.
The harrowing story of the Cal Fire crew and their inmate colleagues had not been publicly reported until Friday when state fire investigators released a Green Report, launched after any firefighter injuries or deaths. Despite claiming at least 86 civilian lives, no firefighters died in the blaze, although five were injured. The report’s account of two close calls during the first 24 hours of the firefight is proof that the outcome could have easily been much different.
In addition to the Rattlesnake Flats incident, an exploding propane tank launched shrapnel at two firefighters protecting a home in Magalia. All but one of the firefighters were released from the hospital the same day, except the Cal Fire captain from Rattlesnake Flats, who was finally released from the hospital last week, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said.
Was he surprised the state’s deadliest and most destructive fire didn’t leave a bigger firefighter toll?
“Seriously, yes,” McLean said. “Six firefighter deaths this year alone. Don’t know why none on the Camp.”
The report further emphasizes the destructive weather patterns and dry vegetation that created an “urban firestorm” that gobbled up 76 acres a minute with embers igniting spot fires a mile ahead. Those small fires would become 200-acre conflagrations within minutes, investigators said.
The report compared the blaze to the firestorm that wiped out the German city of Hamburg during the height of World War II. An Allied bombing run called “Operation Gomorrah” in July 1943, boosted by dry conditions and intense winds created an “urban firestorm” that killed 42,600 civilians and wounded 37,000 more.
By 2:45 p.m. Nov. 8, the Camp fire had devastated Paradise and was feeding off vegetation and making its way out of the foothills. The two hand strike teams positioned along Rattlesnake Flats Road watched as 10- to 15-foot-high flames shot across the road, blocking both directions.
Both crews feverishly attempted to set back fires to get a small buffer from the advancing flames, but managed only about 20 feet, according to the report.
The first inmate ran toward the flames to escape, but was stopped by the fence. He suffered burns on his face and neck. A second firefighter ran the opposite direction. He leapt over the barbed wire fence but a tool on his belt caught and he fell to the ground. Flames ignited his hair, beard and mustache and left him with burns on his face and neck, the report said.
State prison officials would not confirm where the inmates were jailed but released their ages, 30 and 27. The 30-year-old was treated and released and the 27-year-old had burns over 3 percent of his body and spent more than one day in the hospital, a state prison spokesperson said.
A Cal Fire captain at the site received serious burns to his hands, arms, face and neck, and lay on the dirt road after the fire swept past. A strike team leader drove to the scene at 3 p.m. “where he observed inmate firefighters attempting to provide medical care to (the fire captain).”
He called in the emergency, but radio transmissions were so busy, no one heard his call for medical aid. By 3:30 p.m., the injured men were all removed by ambulance.
“(They were) very fortunate,” McLean said. “There were propane tanks exploding everywhere. And yes with respect to the crew (the fire) was there at a moment’s notice and they were standing in it.”
The second incident happened Nov. 9 around 5 a.m. in Magalia. Crews saw a spot fire near a house on Chestnut Circle and began protecting the home from the flames. Without warning, a 250-gallon propane tank exploded more than 200 feet away. A fire captain was hit by burning sticks, branches, pine cones, bark and molten aluminum, while a nearby firefighter was hit with embers and pieces of fence. Both received face and neck burns, the report said.
On Thursday, firefighters were honored at an appreciation dinner at The Palms, an event center in Chico.
“I am in awe of what they did to save the people of my community,” said Paradise Mayor Jody Jones, who spoke at the dinner. “They are true heroes. I am so sorry that some of them were injured.
“It’s really amazing that they got most everyone out and they got out.”