Residents have lingering questions
Did a ‘backburn’ cause the Concow fire? And why such short notification?
As they parse their trauma, Concow fire survivors repeatedly return to two questions: Was an intentionally set “backburn” responsible for burning their homes? And, why didn’t they have more time to evacuate?
Although CalFire did present information about the fire at a community meeting a week after the fire passed through, many evacuees continue to suspect that the backburn was responsible for the fire’s reaching Concow.
Using a set of maps, George Morris, the CalFire incident commander on the Butte Lightning Complex fires from July 5-24, recounted the events of July 4-8, as CalFire understands them.
By July 4, the Camp Fire, ignited by lightning strikes on June 21, had crept slowly southeast along the North Fork Feather River drainage until it was four miles from inhabited areas in Concow.
On July 6 or 7, the fire crossed a fire line north of Pulga, threatening the old railroad town in the Feather River Canyon. Morris stated that CalFire had been working on this line for several days, but due to steep terrain and the necessity to hand cut with ground crews, had been unable to completely fortify the line. “Hand crews were in short supply all over California,” he reported.
CalFire then moved resources, including bulldozers and hand crews, to another fire line south of Pulga preparatory to starting a backfire. CalFire’s meteorological reports predicted that the usual down-canyon winds, with the attendant drop in humidity, would likely appear about 3 a.m. on July 8.
By “6 or 7 p.m.” on July 7, Morris stated, crews had started backfiring a half-mile of the line. By 11 p.m., however, “the weather was starting to become unfavorable,” and spot fires started crossing the fire line at various locations apart from the backfire area. “That fire was coming, backfire or not,” Morris bluntly stated.
As the northeast winds began to increase, the CalFire division handling the backfiring operation recommended, around 11:30 p.m., that Concow be evacuated.
Morris knew then that he needed to move resources from those spot fires to Concow, which he did. Before that night, Morris repeatedly stated, the Camp Fire had not been moving rapidly, although he knew that holding the second fire line, south of Pulga, would be “a very tough operation,” due to the dryness of the fuel and the steep terrain. He also knew that if fire reached the top of the ridge between Concow and the existing fire perimeter of July 7, it would be very difficult to control.
As was true in many parts of California, Concow was a firefighter’s nightmare: drought-weakened, dry fuel; dense undergrowth; steep terrain; distant emergency services such as fire stations and sheriff’s departments; and many homes scattered down rural roads, some presenting escape hazards to both crews and citizens.
Morris stated that CalFire always considered the risk to Concow from the Camp Fire, even weeks before the fateful July 7. In fact, by July 5, CalFire had already extinguished the Rim, Empire, West, Rag Dump and Crain fires, which had burned much closer to or in the Concow basin, forcing evacuation of the area on June 21. Residents were allowed to return on June 29, after those fires were controlled.
Fire came over the ridge sometime after midnight. The predicted down-canyon winds picked up speed early, around midnight on July 7. “That fire was like a freight train coming,” Morris remembered.
Winds drove from the northeast, whipping the fire through Concow and Jordan Hill, which lies between Concow and Paradise. Winds were logged at Jarbo Gap from 8-23 mph at midnight on July 7, and from 21-44 mph at their strongest, at 6 a.m. on July 8.
The rapid spread of the Camp Fire, later termed the Lightning Complex Fire, in the 20 hours between 10 p.m. on July 7 and 7 p.m. the next day, is horrifying, especially when you know what lay in its path. By my best count, based on CalFire’s maps, the fire burned at least 7,000 acres in those hours.
Numerous evacuees report having an hour or less—sometimes much less—to vacate their homes in the face of visible flames. Some received word from neighbors or emergency-services workers or from the county’s reverse-911 telephone system.
Given the short notice that many report, it is a blessing that only one death was reported. None of the dozens of people to whom I spoke for this story thought they had adequate time to remove more than a few items from their homes.
Mike Thompson, the information-systems analyst for the Butte County Sheriff’s Department who handles the county’s reverse-911 notification system, said residents in specific areas of Concow should have received an automatic call at 10:57 p.m. on July 7, or again at 12:04 a.m. on July 8.
Margaret Huff, who lived on Green Forest Road, on the north side of the Concow basin, reported that she and her husband received neither call. Melissa Hill, who lives less than a mile from the Huffs, said she did receive a reverse-911 call about 1:30 a.m. on July 8, and that she is certain of the time.
Thompson explained that the reverse-911 system notifies residents in any area specified by the Sheriff’s Department or CalFire. The Sheriff’s Department uses a database, provided by AT&T, of 179,000 telephone numbers, with addresses of virtually all county residents with landline telephones. Those using only cell phones must register with the system in order to be included in the database.
The database is correlated with geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology provided by the vendor of the system, CityWatch. The system then sends out an automated emergency phone message, as well as a list of addresses.
Sheriff’s deputies use the addresses and GIS coordinates for-house to-house, in-person notification, which Thompson stated is required when fire threatens residences. He noted that only 30 telephone numbers in the entire database appear without addresses.
Aside from having a landline and an address in the database, or a registered cell phone with adequate service (there is none in Concow), the phone lines must be functioning in order to receive a reverse-911 call, Thompson explained. He advised that all residences have a corded phone that plugs directly into the wall, usually available for $10. This type of phone is not dependent on electrical power, as is the cordless type, although it does require functioning telephone service.
Paul Moreno, local Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokesperson, reported that a bulldozer working on a fire line at Jarbo Gap, near Concow, toppled a utility pole on July 7, which then interrupted electrical power at 5:15 p.m. to 314 customers in the Concow/Jarbo Gap area. Electrical power was not restored until after the fire, so these residents would not have been able to receive a reverse-911 call if they did not possess a corded landline telephone.