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.
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.
Forest Supervisor of Sierra National Forest
Forest Supervisor of Giant Sequoia National Monument/Sequoia National Forest
Superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks