Forest Service Feels the Heat Over Blaze in Alpine County

Times Staff Writer

The fire is out, people in this ravaged town of 150 are beginning to rebuild and Dave Zellmer, chief of the 18-man volunteer Fire Department and weekend singer in a country and western band, was having a hard time Tuesday figuring out why the U.S. Forest Service turned down his help last week.

"Maybe we're just a bunch of hillbillies and don't know what we're doing, but we can put water on houses," said Zellmer, chief for the past dozen years or so.

Asked to Stay Away

For nearly three hours after last Wednesday's fire was discovered, U.S. Forest Service officials insisted that they had the blaze under control and asked that the Woodfords Volunteer Fire Department stay away. The volunteers were called in only after winds up to 45 m.p.h. kicked up and sent the fire roaring toward this settlement 30 miles south of Lake Tahoe. By the time it was over, 25 homes and 6,500 acres in the once pine-covered Acorn Canyon of Toiyabe National Forest were turned to ash.

Although the flames had died Tuesday, the heat continued over the way in which federal firefighters handled the blaze, the worst to hit Alpine County within memory. By some standards, the loss may not seem large. But in a county of 1,200 people, the $5-million loss equals the entire county budget for a year.

Several homeowners here complained that federal fire crews, primarily trained to fight wildfires and not structural fires, stood by while homes burned. One rancher reported that he was threatened with arrest when he arrived with a bulldozer and tried to save some of his land.

The rancher was not alone in his take-charge effort, for in a town the size of Woodfords almost everyone pitches in. Supervisor Chris Gansberg Jr., for one, found an unattended Forest Service pumper truck in a garage. Although it needed repair, he and few friends took it.

"We had no authorization. It just seemed like the right thing to do. We must have pumped 50 or 60 tanks," he said.

Lynn Doyal, 40, credited Gansberg with saving his house, while most of his neighbors' homes, including that of his parents, were destroyed. Doyal said a federal fire crew had a pumper nearby but would not douse a cord of firewood that was flaming next to his house. Gansberg ended up putting it out.

On Monday, Forest Service officials threatened to arrest Gansberg for taking the truck until Greg Clark, local head of the Forest Service, interceded, Gansberg said.

"I'm no firefighter," he said, "but it was helter-skelter."

At a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday in the county seat of Markleeville, Supervisor John Bennett, whose house was destroyed, called for an attorney general's investigation. Others called on the state fire marshal to look into it and for a congressional inquiry.

Some local officials were willing to withhold judgment until the investigation is complete. Clark, in charge of U.S. Forest Service land in the Alpine County area, acknowledged that there will be an investigation with congressional involvement--"and that's fine."

But while he would not discuss the firefighting effort in detail, an effort that cost more than $1 million and involved more than 1,500 firefighters, Clark said: "From our viewpoint right now, they really did a good job."

Feelings Run Deep

Several officials noted privately that people whose homes are burned often are critical of firefighters' efforts. But in Alpine County, the feelings run especially deep, fueled largely by the U.S. Forest Service request that Woodfords volunteers go home when the fire was discovered.

Bob Stephens, one of 18 members of the Woodfords Volunteer Fire Department, was among the first to arrive at the fire 200 yards uphill from a campground at about 11:30 a.m. last Wednesday. At the time, it was smoldering and only a few feet square.

He said he suggested that the volunteers and federal firefighters climb uphill to the fire and smother it with shovels and axes. The federal officials rejected that suggestion, saying they had called for a helicopter to drop water on it, Stephens said.

Then at about 1:10 p.m., according to a chronology taken from radio transmissions, with the fire roughly a quarter of an acre in size, the federal firefighters told the volunteers to go home.

"They still could have put it out with shovels. But they sat there with binoculars, watching it," Stephens said.

"They informed us it was a wildland fire, they had taken care of it, it was no big thing," Zellmer said. "Three, four or five different times, we asked them, 'What can we do to help, What do you need?' "

By 2:24 p.m., the wind had sent the fire out of control--"and they were begging for us to come back," Zellmer said.

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