Firefighters, city park staff assess aftermath of Stoney Fire
Chico Fire Division Chief Jesse Alexander rumbled his fire truck along a craggy bulldozed path just beyond the Canyon Oaks subdivision on Tuesday morning (July 16). The charred earth—speckled with patches of white, smoldering ash—was so close to touching the homes there, the juxtaposition was indisputable, like a yin-yang symbol.
He checked in with a Cal Fire division chief: “How are we looking?”
At the time, most of the south side of Upper Bidwell Park remained closed as crews continued cleaning up after knocking back the blazes of the Stoney Fire, which torched 960 acres of the park after breaking out just before midnight last Thursday (July 10).
The neighborhood was peaceful, despite recent evacuations: A couple of residents were spotted washing a truck, another taking a walk.
Alexander, as operations chief of the Stoney Fire, had set a formidable goal that day: gathering up all 7.5 miles of hose splayed across the steep, rugged landscape. Crews also were mopping up hot spots and addressing smoke plumes, a joint effort between Cal Fire and Chico Fire.
“We got extremely fortunate,” said Alexander, who’s been with the fire department for 18 years.
As far as he knows, this is the largest blaze Chico has had within its parks, including a fire in 1999 that threatened Horseshoe Lake as it burned down from Cohasset. “For the city of Chico, this is a significant fire,” he said.
The whole fight, which ended with no structures burned or injuries worse than a couple of firefighters experiencing allergic reactions to bee stings, could have been disastrous had the weather not made such a dramatic shift on Friday, with no major winds and moderate temperatures. As of Wednesday morning, the fire was 94 percent contained.
Chico Fire Chief Steve Standridge said “crews did a remarkable job” creating a defensible line between the homes in Canyon Oaks and the fire. They were able to get a bulldozer in the area early and create not one, but two fire break lines (the flames jumped the first).
Meanwhile, many parts of Upper Park have been inaccessible for a week, and there’s still no concrete indication of how hard the park was hit, and how much restoration work will be needed.
Parts of the park likely will remain closed at least through the weekend. This is mainly to protect the public—from falling trees, hot spots, smoldering stumps and earth and the like—but it also serves as a protection for the environment while it is still in a sensitive condition, said Linda Herman, city park and natural resources manager.
It’s a challenge, however, keeping people out: To put the popularity of that section of the park into perspective, an average of 480,000 cars drive through the gate into Upper Bidwell Park each year, and that’s not accounting for bicycle and foot traffic.
“People don’t see smoke, so they think, ‘It’s out. OK, we can go back in,’” Herman said. “Everybody’s so used to using it and using it every day. It really impacts them. They won’t have all those acres to use for a while, and it’s going to be tough.”
Tuesday morning, Herman had a chance to see the damage from a breathtaking vantage point off Highway 32—just below Santos Road and east of the Peregrine Point disc golf course. (Herman said repairs seem manageable there: some split-rail fencing, trees and benches were burned and one golf basket was damaged by a bulldozer.) Alexander estimates about one-third of the trees in the scorched areas may fall, and all things considered, that’s a pretty good outcome. Herman appeared optimistic, stating that the damage wasn’t as bad as she anticipated.
The department is being realistic, because it knows it’ll be almost impossible to keep any part of the park closed for an extended period, she said. Staff will be making repairs that need immediate attention, opening those areas and then working on long-term restoration efforts, including erosion prevention and replanting trees and grasses.
Ironically, before the fire, Herman was pursuing a $400,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant before the fire started that would have funded controlled burns and vegetation removal in the exact same area. Now, the grant application will be retooled, focusing on restoration, and perhaps prescribed burning for the north side of Upper Park.
During a tour of Upper Park, Alexander paused to field several calls and even a text from Standridge—the chief needed to make sure Alexander was getting some rest. He chuckled and acknowledged in a self-deprecating manner that even when he does go home, he’s able to catch only five to six hours as long as the fire is active, because he can’t stop thinking about how his crews are doing.
Standridge says a lack of resources within the Fire Department created an extra challenge when it came to ensuring his firefighters have been getting enough rest. Currently, staffing is at 14 firefighters per day; a minimum target is 17, according to the 2016 Community Risk Assessment and Standards of Response Coverage Study.
“With respect to the city, we are absolutely stretched beyond what I would consider a good safety target for our folks. They’re working a lot of overtime,” he said. “We’re below what I would consider a safe margin. We have rolled the dice.”