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Fire on the Mountain

Tales From the Front Lines


Published:

Stephen Joseph

 

September 8 was a Sunday. A hot one. As many of us were getting ready to cheer on the Niners, Giants, A’s, or America’s Cup racers, a spark from target shooting on the back side of Mount Diablo started a fire that soon set our mountain ablaze.

For those near Mount Diablo, it was a sleepless night as the fire grew. Local firefighters stayed on the mountain for more than 24 hours, until backup arrived from around the state, and 100 homes were evacuated along Morgan Territory Road. Residents along the 680–24 corridor snapped photos of the smoke rising from the peak, and called friends and family to make sure they were OK.

Here are the stories of the Morgan Fire, from the people who saw it up close.

Mike Marcucci / Day by Day: A Fire’s Progress / Dylan Jorgensen / Tamara Thole Steiner / Eric Niles / Anthony Carini / Alex Shveyda / Stephen Joseph / Mayor of Claycord / Additional Content and Photo Gallery


 

“It burned so angrily.”

01. Mike Marcucci Contra Costa Battalion Chief, Cal Fire
As told to Stacey Kennelly.

I have a very close relationship to the mountain. It is the centerpiece of my battalion as well as the centerpiece of the Bay Area. It’s right out our window, and we stare at it all day long, wondering, “What would we do if it did catch fire?”

I was on a day off in San Francisco, enjoying the America’s Cup and a show. When I got out of the show, I turned my phone back on, and by then the fire had exploded and was burning out of control. When I got to the fire scene, it had slowed down a bit. But not for long.

I met with my chief and the incident commander at the time, and we decided to take a helicopter ride to see if we were going to need to call in an incident management team to help. At that time, the fire was about 800 acres.

Jose Carlos Fajardo

 

The one thing you don’t want to do is make a big deal out of a small fire. We have trigger points, and we have decision points. And we decided that if the fire crossed the North Peak road, we would order in a command team, which brings in 1,000 people. If we did that, we’d also have to decide where we were going to put everybody. We thought about a few locations, and decided on Camp Parks, a military base in Dublin.

I took about five helicopter flights over the fire to constantly reassess its conditions. This is my 24th year in the fire department, and in very few instances have I seen more spectacular fire behavior. There were parts of the mountain that had never burned, at least in our known history. There were 80- to 100-foot flame lengths coming off the mountain. The way it sparked, it looked like fuel burning—like actual gasoline. It burned so angrily. That’s the way I would describe it.

I had a huge responsibility to stop the fire. I am the only Cal Fire battalion chief in this county, and we are here for these people—especially the people of Morgan Territory and Marsh Creek. I know all those people by name out there. They look at us, and they look to me, to provide them fire protection and make sure they’re safe, and that they don’t lose their property they’ve worked so hard for.

“The scary part of Mount Diablo is that the mountain is going to burn how it wants to, and we just needed to push it where we wanted it to go.”

Up in a helicopter, it’s very daunting. Because you’re up there, and you’re looking down, and you’re thinking, “Where could I even begin to stop this thing?” It’s almost an overwhelming feeling.

The scary part of Mount Diablo is that the mountain is going to burn how it wants to, and we just needed to push it where we wanted it to go. The wind changes up there every day, and when you’re on the back side of that, you can’t tell what’s going to happen. The last big fire on the mountain was in 1977, and it burned down toward Clayton. Before that, the last known fire was in 1931. That’s a tremendous amount of fuel on the mountain.

The biggest fear for life and property has always been the Danville and Alamo side because homes encroach so far onto the mountain. An equal threat, though, exists on the Morgan Territory side, which is where the fire did burn this time.

Initially, we thought it’d be about 6,500 acres. When fighting fires, we draw a box and pick four roads we’re going to keep the fire within, and then that’s how we evaluate and manage what we’re doing. We wanted to keep it south of Morgan Territory, west of Marsh Creek, north of Curry Canyon, and east of North Peak road.

Luckily, in this case, we were able to make that box smaller.

Am I glad it’s over? Yeah, I am. Nobody got hurt. We had a couple of firefighter injuries, but nothing serious. No major property was lost.

But the most complex part is just starting. Right now, the fire is all but contained, but I have a new sixth-month project. We’re moving into the rehabilitation part, which is complicated because we want to ensure that our friends at the state park, and the citizens who use the park, come back to a park in the natural state it was in before the fire.

Our battle now is to take the control lines we had to put in to stop the fire and rehabilitate so we don’t have erosion. Flooding is one of our worries because when fire burns so hot, the land becomes hard, and water doesn’t absorb: It runs over it. But there are a lot of great scientists from the park
and Cal Fire that are working together. This is
what they do.

It’s going to take a while. It may take years for vegetation to regrow. But I think spring and the wildflowers will be fabulous. The deer will come back; the wild pigs will come back; the snakes, the spiders, the frogs.

 


Adam HayesDay by Day: A Fire’s Progress

Day 1: September 8
A fire call is dispatched to the Sunshine Fire Station on Marsh Creek Road around
1 p.m. The original fire is quickly contained, but a spot fire nearby flares up and out of control. Crews attack the second fire and remain on the mountain through the night.

Day 2: September 9
Relief firefighter crews arrive on the mountain by the end of the day. The fire spreads to 3,077 acres and is only 20 percent contained. Evacuations are ordered for homes near Morgan Territory.

Day 3: September 10
Firefighters report that the fire is 45 percent contained. Fire chars 3,111 acres.

Day 4: September 11
The fire is 80 percent contained, with hot spots smoldering in many places but no active flames. Engines, firefighters, and other resources from around the state start to head home, and fire duties are handed off to local departments.

Day 5: September 12
The firefighter compound at Camp Parks continues to demobilize. Fire officials release a cause: target shooting.

Day 6: September 13
The fire nears full containment.

Day 7: September 14
The fire is 100 percent contained. Mt. Diablo State Park reopens two days later.


 

Thomas Broening

 

“It happened so fast.”

02. Dylan Jorgensen Fire Apparatus Engineer
As told to Stacey Kennelly.

We were just finishing up lunch at the station and were really excited to watch the 49ers and Green Bay Packers game. Right as it was about to start, though, the buzzer from our dispatch center went off.

I went on the lower part of the fire, and my partner, the captain who was behind me, went on the upper part. At that point, the fire was maybe a quarter of an acre. It was just burning in some grass and pine needles, and hadn’t gotten into the trees yet or anything. I reported back that there wasn’t much of a threat. Within 10 minutes, we had a hose around the fire, and the firefighters were starting to mop up some of the hot spots inside.

We started to investigate for the origin and cause, but as I was walking over to talk to a property owner, one of the battalion chiefs pulled up and told me there was a spot fire 800 to 1,000 feet away. But this one was burning in a different type of fuel bed.

The fuel bed the spot fire landed in was heavy, dense brush, with an oak and pine mixed overstory. Just really, really critically dry fuels. By the time we were able to move our engines and get hose lines in place, the spot fire had taken off like gasoline. The fuels were so heavy that it was hard for our crews to get in there and get the hose lines in place to put water on it. It was just … it was gone.

By that time of day, it was still only, probably, 2 o’clock. It happened so fast.

I was assigned to the left flank, or the Morgan Territory side of the fire. It was probably 50 to 100 acres, and we started ordering more resources. For the next five to six hours, we were just trying to get equipment in place and direct crews, dozers, water tenders, and engines. Basically, just trying to get hundreds of people on the fire line.

We also had to know exactly where everyone and everything was at: That’s an important thing in the fire service. You can’t just have people roaming around. You can’t just see something and go attack it. You have to be given an assignment, know who you’re working for, and who is working for you.

By the time it was dark, there were at least 100 firefighters on the mountain, in just my division alone. We spent the night trying to keep the fire up on the mountain, and prevent it from coming down and impacting the homes on Morgan Territory. We were there from the start of the fire until about 2 o’clock the next day, more than 24 hours. They couldn’t let us leave until more resources came in to replace us. And those people had to get here, get their assignments, go get gas, get fed, and drive out to the mountain.

We took turns sleeping for a couple of hours here and there, when we could, in the dirt. During those long hours, some people sleep in the engine if they’re tired enough, or some guys will open the hose beds on the engine and sleep on the hose.

I felt such a responsibility to stop this thing. Your training kicks in, and you just start doing what you were trained to do.

But at some point, you stop and look around at what’s happening. I felt good about what was going on, but at the same time, I almost felt like we failed, even though there was no way we could slow it down, with those fuel conditions and the weather and the way the fire was burning. So instead of trying to stop the fire, we were just trying to stop it from burning people’s property and burning people.

“I know every firefighter that was working around me had feet that were blistered and bleeding and sore to the point where it almost hurt to stand up.”

We threw a lot of resources at it, and we were very aggressive in putting the fire out, and that’s why it was almost contained within four days. At the highest point, we had 1,352 firefighters up there.

I’ve hiked Mount Diablo before, and some of the terrain is the worst for fire. It’s steep, rocky, with heavy fuels, brush, poison oak—just nasty stuff. There is lots of stuff up there that can fall and basically hurt or kill you, if you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing. After we finally got some rest, I know every firefighter that was working around me had feet that were blistered and bleeding and sore to the point where it almost hurt to stand up.

It’s been so long since a fire has burned on that mountain, and everyone thought they knew what was going to happen if it were to catch fire. But now that we have a picture in our slideshow of where we can stop it or how it’s going to behave at night, it’ll help with our decision making in the future, if this were to happen again.

 


Stats

19: Number of bull-dozers.
5: Number of helicopters.
1,352: Number of fire personnel.


 

“It was what hell looks like.”

03. Tamara Thole Steiner Editor, Clayton Pioneer
As told to Robert Burnson.

It started Sunday afternoon.

I heard a fire truck go by, and I followed it, and when I turned the corner a half mile up the road, I was blown away. The fire was huge. And it kept growing. Was it just over the next hill? We didn’t know. It looked like a volcano with lava everywhere.

I was trying to get as much information as I could for the paper. But we lost Internet when the fire burned the power lines, and our cell phones only worked sporadically. Mostly, we were in an information blackout.

In the morning, I drove to town to get the paper out. We didn’t finish until almost midnight. When I tried to get home, the road was blocked. I stayed at the house of a friend, until the police called at 3 a.m. and said I could go home.

When I got to Morgan Territory, the scene was indescribable. It was what hell looks like. The oak trees were glowing embers. Firefighters were cutting down the stumps to make sure they weren’t still burning. And behind that, the whole mountain looked like charcoal.

By Tuesday morning, it was still smoky, but we were no longer facing a wall of fire. There were lots of helicopters flying overhead making water drops.

Things are getting back to normal now. It’s still a little smoky, and there’s lots of ash on the ground. I’m wondering what it’s going to look like on North Peak. That was my place … where I always hike.

But we’re so grateful. No one lost a house. In the grand scheme of things, burning that mountain is good. It’s nature’s way of taking out the trash.

Jose Carlos Fajardo

 


 

“The kids were nervous.”

04. Eric Niles Head of the Athenian School in Danville
As told to Robert Burnson.

The Athenian campus is set in a bowl, with the mountain rising around it. We had a good view of the fire on Monday, and that put the whole campus on edge.

The kids were curious and nervous. Parents were calling. And there was a time in the afternoon—when the smoke and fire was at its worst—that we started wondering about the air quality, and about how fast the fire was moving. But they got the fire under control pretty quickly after that, and the moment passed.

Throughout the day, I stayed in close contact with the leadership of the fire department. They had my cell phone number, and
I had theirs.

They promised to give us 24 hours’ notice if we needed to evacuate. But we were ready to go at any time. We kept the bus drivers on campus all day, and if I had to, I could have gotten the kids—all 460 of them—off the campus in a few minutes.

I won’t overdramatize it: There was never a moment when we were in danger. Of course, most of my day was taken up by the fire. But if you’re the head of this school and there’s a fire on the mountain, that’s your job.

 


Stats

4: Number of air tankers needed to battle the blaze.
142: Number of fire engines.
1: Number of state park bathrooms destroyed in the fire.


 

“There was a wall of fire.”

05. Anthony Carini Evacuee
As told to Robert Burnson.

I was up at Kennedy Meadows when I heard about the fire. I called my neighbor, and he said, “You better get home.” So I jumped in my truck and started driving.

It took me three and a half hours to get home. But when I got there, they wouldn’t let me go up the road. I lied and said I had my horses at the house. So the officer said he’d get a search and rescue team to go up there with me. But then I had to tell the truth—that I didn’t have any horses up there—and he got really mad and told me to leave.

I spent the night at my sister’s house. My neighbor hadn’t evacuated, so I kept checking in with him. He said the flames were very close. He could see them. I was scared to death that we were going to lose the house.

I got up early and drove back to the roadblock. This time, I told them I lived on Morgan Territory Road, and they let me through. When I got to Oak Hill Lane, there was no roadblock, so I snuck in. There were lots of fire trucks going up and down the street.

I found my neighbor, and we sat it out together. The fire seemed to be dying down. We thought we were out of the woods. But on Monday night, another fire started, and there was a wall of fire coming toward the house.

We packed up the truck with valuables and drove down the hill. They were able to stop it at the creek, about a quarter mile away. After it quieted down, we went back home.

We didn’t get much sleep that night. We took shifts watching the fire.

We were lucky. My neighbor lost an old tractor. Some other people lost fence lines. But no one lost a home.

 


 

“You could feel the heat.”

06. Alex Shveyda Instructor at Earthquake Arabians
As told to Robert Burnson.

I have never been so scared in my entire life. They called us at 8:30 on Monday night and said that the fire was literally burning across the street from the barn. We had moved some of the horses out of the barn on Sunday so that there wouldn’t be too many left to fit in the trailers, if we had to get out in a hurry. But we still had 15 horses trapped in the barn with no way out.

We drove out there. But they wouldn’t let anyone go down the road. So we had to walk the last half-mile. It was frightening. The fire was coming right up to the road. You could feel the heat. The fire had already jumped the road once, and I was thinking that one gust of wind could blow it right back on us.

Fortunately, it didn’t, and we got to the barn, and the horses were all right. We wanted to get the horses out as soon as possible. But they still weren’t letting anyone on the road. So all we could do was to wait and get everything we could that was flammable out of the barn.

At about 2:15 in the morning, they opened up the road, and we loaded up all the horses on trailers and got them out of there.

Thank heavens for all the men and women who stopped the fire on our side of the road. If they hadn’t, I don’t think we would have been able to get the horses out.

I’m so glad this is all over, and the horses are safe. But I’m sad about what the fire did. I used to ride all the trails out there. But now all those trails are completely destroyed. It’s going to take a while before we can ride out there again.

Jose Carlos Fajardo

 


Stats

1977: The year Mount Diablo last burned. (Before that, it was 1931.)
3,111: Acres burned.
6: Number of months restoration efforts are expected to last.


 

“I was obsessed.”

07. Stephen Joseph Photographer
As told to Peter Crooks.

I have been photographing Mount Diablo since 1987, and in all these years, nothing like this had happened. I was obsessed with the fire, following updates on my iPhone. It was beautiful and horrific all at the same time.

The night the fire broke out, I went to Dinosaur Hill in Pleasant Hill to take pictures. I got there around dark and stayed until midnight because it was so captivating. The tower of smoke looked like an atomic bomb had gone off.

The next morning, I headed to Kregor Peak, the very first peak east of the mountain, just east of Clayton, where I had a bird’s-eye view. I thought I would stay for an hour or two, but I was there all day.

It was absolutely mesmerizing to watch the way the fire was fought, to observe the strategy of the battle, from the giant DC-10 swooping and dropping fire retardant and helicopters dropping water, to the firefighters on the ground attacking every wisp of smoke and fire that would break out. It was terrifying from a distance to see those firefighters up against walls of flame. I can’t imagine what it would have looked like on the ground.

There’s the part of you that worries about the immediate threats, the possible loss of homes and life. But then, there is the realization that fire is a necessary part of the environment.

 


 

“It was round the clock.”

08. Mayor of Claycord Blogger
As told to LeeAnne Jones.

I was visiting with family in Concord, when my phone started blowing up. E-mails were coming in from readers out in Morgan Territory who saw smoke and wanted to know what was going on.

I knew this was going to be something big; you could just tell by the response in the community. I walked outside and could see the smoke. People were coming to the site looking for information, so I put up a general post that basically said, “Hey, there is a fire in the area, and we’re looking into it. Stay tuned.”

That day, I stayed up until 1 or 2 in the morning, and then got up at 4 or 5 to check in. I got up again around 7 for Cal Fire updates. It was round the clock. The website nearly crashed: There were 250,000 page views in one half hour on Monday. I knew there were people out there at evacuation centers or staying with friends, wondering what was going on. It was hard for me to take extended breaks when someone’s house might be burning down.

I also worried about firefighters losing their lives or being severely injured. Seeing some of the photos, you really get a sense of what they’re doing up there on the mountain. It’s unbelievable: walls of flames up against these guys and gals. It’s not an easy job. I don’t even like to go outside in 90 degrees, let alone fight a fire in it. I can’t stress enough how important they are.

I went down to Station 11 in Clayton just to see what was going on. While I was there, about 20 people dropped off bottled water or bags of food from Burger King. There were kids who made hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The fire is the big story, but the way the community came together is a huge story, too. I am so proud of the Claycord community.

 


 

Additional Content and Photo Gallery

Hannah Craddick: Resident
As told to Stacey Kennelly

My family and I live in a log cabin, three doors down from the south gate of Mount Diablo State Park. Our backyard butts up against open space. We’re so close to Mount Diablo that we can’t actually see it. That made it difficult to gauge how close the fire was getting to us.

The night the fire started, the skyline over our nearest ridge was aglow with the fire’s reflection. On the other side of the world, my mom was waking up in England and checking the Danville webcam of Mount Diablo while drinking her morning cup of tea. You can imagine her reaction when she saw dramatic, live feed of our mountain burning. I assured her we were all safe … for the time being.

All night, I checked that same webcam to monitor the fire’s progress, even tiptoeing into our yard to check our glowing ridgeline for flames. It was a long night.

At about 5 a.m., what I saw on the webcam really freaked me out. The mountain looked to be losing the fight, and I just had to get out of bed. Fierce black and orange smoke was billowing into the sky.

But, again, it was impossible to tell how close the fire was to us. Was it on the next ridge? Was the smoke I was seeing from the summit? If we had caught a glimpse of flames, we would have packed up pets and people, and gotten out.

Thanks to our superb firefighters, we didn’t have to.

 


 

Bob Doyle: general manager, East Bay Regional Parks District
As told to Peter Crooks

I was living in a ranger residence on August 7, 1977, when the last big fire broke out. This fire we just had was big, but that one was much bigger. About 6,000 acres burned; all of the north side of the mountain and much of the west side.

We had just had two years of drought, a very similar dry period to what we have now. Right around sunset, a lightning strike hit Twin Peaks above Clayton, right in the Coulter pine forest, which was just a tinderbox. It went up fast.

I saw the light, then the smoke. I remember meeting the State Park ranger outside the ranger cabins, and he said, “Here come the planes, they’ll get it.” I know the vegetation of the mountain—I’m a founding board member of Save Mount Diablo—and I told him, “They are not going to get it.” Soon after that, we had to evacuate. As we were leaving, the fire trucks showed up. They were able to save the cabin and the barn, but everything else was burnt.

We learned a lot fighting the 1977 fire. Back then they built firebreaks with bulldozers that were 200 to 300 feet wide—but the wall of fire jumped right over them. Each canyon on Mount Diablo has different winds that are very tricky, there are updrafts in these really steep canyons and they drive the fire up or down a canyon really quickly.

The key to fighting a fire on Mount Diablo is backburning, or burning up to a firebreak, to be able to have more control of the burn. The lessons we learned from the 1977 fire helped fight this recent fire effectively.

 


 

Support Your Local Mountain

These events will give East Bay residents new reasons to appreciate their backyard gem.

October 19: Shelter Inc. of Contra Costa County hosts Hike For Shelter to benefit homeless outreach. Four separate hikes, ranging in distance and difficulty, will be held between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Mount Diablo Registration is $50 per adult; kids are free. shelterincofccc.org.

November 6: Head to the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, for a concert of original music, performed by the Contra Costa Wind Symphony, and set to a spectacular display of giant 3-D photographs of Mount Diablo, taken by Stephen Joseph. Tickets are $58, and benefit Save Mount Diablo’s land preservation efforts. lesherartscenter.org.

December 7: Look up at Mount Diablo this evening, and you’ll see a beacon of light beaming from the mountaintop. The lighting ceremony will take place at 3:45 p.m., and the light will stay on all night.

The beacon, built in 1928, previously stayed lit all night to warn pilots about the mountain. But on December 7, 1941, the light was turned off, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Beginning in 1964, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association memorialized the occasion by lighting the beacon for one night only, to honor that fateful day.

A major restoration project recently refurbished the Mount Diablo Beacon, which was threatened by the recent wildfires.  

—Peter Crooks

 


 

California’s Summer of Fire

This fire season has been one of the busiest. For the past five years, roughly 3,800 fires have burned from January 1 to September 7 in California. This year, a whopping 5,329 have blazed through our state. Here’s a look at several recent monsters:

Rim Fire, Stanislaus County

Started Aug 17

Contained on Sept 6

255,560 acres burned

Fire personnel: 2,735

Fire engines: 433

Structures threatened: 1,900

Structures damaged: 14

Injuries: 6

Making history: 3rd largest fire to ever hit California

 

Morgan Fire, Contra Costa County

Started Sept 8

95 percent contained as of Sept 13

3,133 acres burned

Structures damaged: 1 park bathroom

Fire personnel: 452

Fire engines: 27

 

Clover Fire, Shasta County

Started Sept 9

80 percent contained as of Sept 13

8,073 acres burned

Fire personnel: 1,183

Fire engines: 100

Structures threatened: 50

Structures damaged: 128 buildings, 68 residences

Injuries: 4

Fatalities: 1

—Caitlin McCulloch

 

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