Letter: Officials give information on Rough Fire

The following letter was signed by Dean Gould, Forest Supervisor of Sierra National Forest; Kevin Elliott Forest Supervisor of Giant Sequoia National Monument/Sequoia National Forest; and Woody Smeck Superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

The Rough Fire: The fire that continually defied suppression efforts.

We want to recognize the residents of east-side communities who lived with smoke from the Rough Fire for many weeks and we thank you for your patience while numerous valiant efforts to contain the fire were made.

Photo courtesy Inciweb

Photo courtesy Inciweb

We also understand that smoke affects one of the primary attractions of the east-side, which is the broad spectrum of recreational opportunities that people from throughout the world come to experience.

However we must dispute several sentiments shared with various east-side media outlets that suggest that this fire was a managed-lightning fire for resource benefit.

In particular, we must refute the idea that our firefighters did not do enough or that we, as land managers, underestimated this fire in initial attack and over the following weeks.

Allow us to share with you of the nature of the fire response.

When lightning ignited seven fires on the Sierra National Forest on July 31st, firefighters quickly contained all but one and fire managers suspected that one was going to be a problem.

Kings Canyon Drainage is known for its stunning beauty because of its dramatic steep cliffs that draw visitors from the world to enjoy this stunning scenery. It is also documented as the largest unbroken vertical rise in North America.

To a firefighter, it’s a no man’s land: steep, technical terrain that has been known for injuring firefighters over the years. It’s so steep that “rollouts” (burning material that gets loosened, rolls down the steep slope, and runs back up the hill) are a constant concern for fire crews. In fact, it is exactly how the fire progressed down the canyon. Aircraft and firefighters themselves can sometimes push the rollouts on these cliffs.

These conditions make it impossible to establish an anchor point for a firefighter to start a containment line. It’s not terrain that firefighters can safely engage a fire.

Add the fourth year of a drought. Add that this was ground zero for the worst die off of trees seen in the southern Sierra. Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service reported that 12 million trees had died in the southern Sierra Nevada, with areas along the Kings Canyon River Drainage hardest hit. Driving along the river drainage, you will see areas with up to 60% tree mortality. This area had missed several fire cycles, meaning there was a thick bed of dried fuels mixed with dead trees. Add continuous days of 100 degree (or more) temperatures.

Firefighters think about weather, fuel, and topography when trying to access fire behavior. The Rough Fire presented the worst of all three.

When fire managers added this all up, they knew they had a challenging fire to deal with. Never for a moment, and contrary to rumors, did fire managers ever consider anything but full suppression.

The problem was how. It was assessed by crews on the ground and by air, they reported the terrain too steep and that direct attack was not an option for safety reasons.

Aircraft cannot do it alone. Helicopters and tankers can slow the fire’s growth and reduce its intensity, but firefighters need to construct the containment line to stop the fire’s growth.

Once the fire became established, crew after crew of firefighters reported that they had never seen fire behavior like they were witnessing. It crossed dozer lines, roads, and rivers with incredible ease.

Firefighters found themselves working to defend Cedar Grove, Hume Lake, Grant Grove Village and Wilsonia, Balch Camp, communities near Wishon, the PG&E Power Plant, and Dunlap.

As the Rough Fire approached the sequoia groves of Giant Sequoia National Monument and in Kings Canyon National Park, firefighters worked to get the best fire effects possible. Giant sequoias are fire-adapted and germinate with the heat surge from the fire than opens the cones in the tree and releases the seeds to the nutrient-rich ash bed below—the catch was ensuring that this fire wasn’t too intense even for the sequoias.

Some of these communities experienced air that ranged from unhealthy to hazardous. Grant Grove Village and Wilsonia were evacuated first for smoke and remained evacuated for fire.

Numerous crews, including those on initial attack, made every effort they could to contain this fire. Many crews have been away from loved ones for most of the summer responding to fires throughout the west, many of which have also grown larger than historically seen and displaying unprecedented fire behavior. We are particularly grateful that, to date, our firefighters will make it home to their families and loved ones. One injury, in particular, reminded us how complex this terrain is; with the rescue being conducted by a roped-in technical rescue team.

So, we thank you for your patience and we recognize that you too have been affected by this fire. We also hope you will also take a moment to be grateful to all the dedicated men and women who worked tirelessly this summer to protect our communities and our infrastructure.


Dean Gould
Forest Supervisor of Sierra National Forest

Kevin Elliott
Forest Supervisor of Giant Sequoia National Monument/Sequoia National Forest

Woody Smeck
Superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks




11 Responses to Letter: Officials give information on Rough Fire

  1. Sierra Lady October 8, 2015 at 5:01 pm #

    Excellent letter that explains everything about the Rough Fire which some may not have been aware of. I hope it gets published in all our local papers.

    John Eastman needs to read this as well as the woman who wrote a letter to the editor of the local papers complaining about the smoke because she “knew” it was a let burn situation.

    A HUGE thank you to all the firefighters and assorted crews who contained all the fires this season. Pray for snow.

    B. Richter

  2. joetheplumber October 8, 2015 at 7:57 am #

    I am very thankful for the rough firefighters. What eludes me is the lack of leadership among the FOREST SUPERVISOR to have ANY outreach to our residents or to provide realistic timeframes to put the fire out. This fire should have been out WAY before it was. We don’t want political canned statements, We want facts, numbers and greater information than this. Self gratifying statements do nothing but avoid the truth: that you, FOREST SUPERVISOR made poor tactical decisions on this fire from the start. Period. Does your salary get cut by the reduced hundreds of thousands of acres of FOREST you no longer need to “supervise”?

    • Alice Chan October 10, 2015 at 6:33 am #

      Joe, did you actually read this letter? You say “this fire should have been out WAY before it was” and that you want facts. Well, this letter gives you facts and tells you why. You seem to be picking and choosing what you want to believe, instead of making an effort to comprehend facts.
      Sorry, you lost me on this one.

    • Don Davis October 13, 2015 at 5:16 am #

      Joe, do you have any experience in fighting these types of fires? I have 40 years of experience, and no I do not know it all. I have also hiked in this terrain, if you can call it hiking. A lot of factors go into a fire of this magnitude, and not everything goes as we would like. Life safety is the number one priority, the civilians and the firefighting personnel. Several years of drought, beetle kill has taken its toll.

    • Jim Huston October 13, 2015 at 7:39 am #

      Joe, I can understand you frustrations of not knowing all the tactical decisions made on the Rough Fire by being on the sidelines. However, I can tell you every effort was made and there was early tactical decisions made. I can tell you this because my crew fought the Rough Fire for over 30 days. We first responded to the Rough Fire in it’s early phase after we had completed our assignment on the Willows Fire on the Sierra National Forest. We where reassigned to the Rough Fire which was less than 60 acres at the time. We received a thorough briefing from the local fire managers. First off, there was an initial attack attempted by a local helicopter rappel crew who made good progress with direct line construction on the fire. However, as Forest Supervisor Gould explained, this was in very extreme steep country. The crew could not get to the logs and fire debris that kept rolling off the steep edges and they were placed in a dangerous situation with fire below them and had to pull out. Fire managers knew based on fire history in this area and the terrain (Garlic Fire, Deer Fire for example) that direct attack was impossible and unsafe for firefighters. We had already suffered 3 Wildland Firefighter fatalities in the nation and 3 more to follow on August 8th. This sits on the minds of those who come up with a plan of attack and where they put firefighters to engage. Fire managers came up with a plan when we arrived to go indirect and create a little bigger box to contain the fire in. This was in better terrain for firefighters, but let me tell you first hand that this terrain was still unforgiving to the Wildland Firefighters. With all the hard work we did, our lines could not hold the fire. With the steepness of the terrain coupled with a 4 year drought and beetle killed trees the extreme fire behavior witnessed I am still amazed that we did not have more injuries or worse (civilian and firefighter) or a large number of structures lost. I would call that a victory looking at some of the other fires that California suffered this fire season.

  3. Jo Paranick October 8, 2015 at 7:20 am #

    For myself and many folks of the “east side”, never did we blame the brave, hardworking fire crews! We just question the “land mgt” about WHEN the crews acted.

  4. Roger Rilling October 7, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

    I would hope that the writers of the letter and editorial will have
    the courtesy to respond.

  5. Dennis Mattinson October 7, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    As a weather forecaster and EPA met Station Director, I am deeply aware of how far this drought has taken us. To fight such a fire under the worst possible conditions and be successful, only shows the greatness of these fire fighting crews. I give up most thanks to all of them.

  6. Eastside Resident October 7, 2015 at 7:26 am #

    I am incredibly thankful for the dedication of the fire crews on the Rough Fire. Thank you!

  7. MJA October 7, 2015 at 7:00 am #

    Thanks! =

  8. John October 7, 2015 at 6:39 am #

    Good read thanks for the info

    ya’ll be safe


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