Reporting from REDDING, Calif. —
Ben Newburn faced a group of weary firefighters gathered a few mornings ago with one message: Safety before anything else.
The veteran fire management officer for U.S. Forest Service recounted the numerous firefighters who had lost their lives battling massive blazes in the region. There was Andrew Palmer, who died 10 years ago while clearing trees. And the nine firefighters killed in 2008 when their helicopter crashed in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, an incident seared in history as the “Iron 44 tragedy.”
“This country … chews up firefighters. It has had a notorious past of being very hard on us,” Newburn said. “So as you guys are going out there, working on whatever assignment you guys have, please keep in mind what you’re doing and the risks associated with that.”
The firestorms in Redding and elsewhere across California have taken a grim toll on firefighters and other responders. A Redding firefighter, a bulldozer operator and a Pacific Gas & Electric utility worker have died during the Carr fire, which has destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Shasta County. Two more firefighters died while battling the Ferguson fire in Yosemite.
And on Thursday, officials announced that a mechanic with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who had been assigned to the Carr fire died in a vehicle crash in Tehama County.
The accident happened at 12:17 a.m. Andrew Brake’s Dodge Ram 5500 veered off Highway 99’s right shoulder and slammed into a tree, said Officer Ken Reineman of the California Highway Patrol’s Red Bluff station.
“On behalf of all Californians, we honor Andrew and the many other brave firefighters and emergency responders who have risked their lives to protect others,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement.
Commanders on the Carr fire routinely have warned of the dangers of driving on roadways clogged by a growing number of emergency personnel. For days, the streets in western Redding and the rural communities along the Sacramento River have been a gauntlet for law enforcement and firefighters, who have had to negotiate narrow, winding roads that sometimes are half-blocked by massive PG&E trucks.
“The biggest hazard for this operational period is going to be driving,” Carr fire public safety officer Baraka Carter said during a morning briefing earlier this week.
A firefighter douses hot spots in the McVicker Canyon neighborhood of Lake Elsinore. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Kenneth Leishman’s home is pink from fire retardant in the McVicker Canyon neighborhood of Lake Elsinore. Leishman stayed to protect his house from the fire. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
A bird perches on a rock Saturday morning at a lookout on Ortega Highway. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
An air tanker drops fire retardant on a flare-up of the Holy fire on a mountain ridge above Lake Elsinore, Calif. Saturday. (Gina Ferazzi / Gina Ferazzi)
People watch as the Holy fire rages on a mountainside in Temescal Valley. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Fire crews from Ventura County brace themselves as fire retardant falls on them after being dropped from the sky while they work to stop the progression of the Holy fire in Lake Elsinore. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Helicopters make drops near homes threatened by the Holy fire in Lake Elsinore. (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)
As the sun rises above Lake Elsinore on Saturday morning, the overnight crew working to contain the Holy fire prepares to leave. Containment levels have continued to rise since the fire broke out Monday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
The charred remains of vehicles lie along Ortega Highway on Saturday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Residents keep watch Friday night as the Holy fire burns out of control in the hillsides above Temescal Valley. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighters try to stop the progression of the Holy fire as it makes its way toward homes due to the strong evening winds from Lake Elsinore. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Stephen Woodward looks towards the sky as helicopters make rounds from Lake Elsinore to the hillside in their fight against the Holy fire on Friday. (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)
Jeff Qualls stands on his roof to watch an air tanker drop fire retardant on flames from the Holy fire as it make its way down the hillside in Lake Elsinore, Calif. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Fire retardant paints a Lakeland Village neighborhood pink in Lake Elsinore, Calif. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighters try to stop the progression of the Holy fire as it makes its way toward homes due to the strong evening winds in Lake Elsinore, Calif. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
An air tanker drops a load of water to save a home in Lake Elsinore, Calif. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
A helicopter fighting the Holy fire drops water on flames at North Main Divide along Ortega Highway. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighters battle to save a home from a wall off flames as the Holy fire continues to burn out of control in Lake Elsinore, Calif. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Residents and law enforcement wear breathing mask to avoid the thick smoke created by Holy Fire in Lake Elsinore. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Chief Mark Lamont, center, oversees firefighting operations at North Main Divide along Ortega Highway. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Two dozers cut a fire line next to flames at North Main Divide along Ortega Highway. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Afternoon winds fan flames close to a home north of Grand Avenue in Lake Elsinore, Calif. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighter Jon Polansky rest after working an overnight shift at a lookout on Ortega Highway above Lake Elsinore. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Kai Cano rest after working an overnight shift at lookout on Ortega Highway. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighters watch for flareups as they prevent the flames from the Holy fire from crossing the Ortega Highway in Lake Elsinore. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighters conduct a burn operation to remove fuel around homes on Grand Avenue as the Holy fire grows to more than 10,000 acres. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Fire crews watch as a helicopter makes a water drop on a flareup as they prevent the Holy fire from crossing the Ortega Highway above Lake Elsinore. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The Holy fire, which has grown to more than 10,000 acres, is reflected off the water of Lake Elsinore. (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)
Jeff Itschner, 43, sprays water on the bushes at his in-laws’ home on Amorose Street near Leach Canyon in Lake Elsinore. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
A helicopter makes a water drop on burning brush on a hill across from homes in Lake Elsinore. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Manuel Trujillo packs his belongings as flames from the Holy fire approach his Lake Elsinore neighborhood. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighters struggle to keep the Holy fire from jumping Lincoln Street toward homes in Lake Elsinore. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Residents evacuate the 29000 block of Sandpiper Drive in Lake Elsinore as the Holy fire approaches homes. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Flames come close to homes in the 29000 block of Sandpiper Drive in Lake Elsinore. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Worried residents watch as flames advance toward their homes on Sandpiper Drive in Lake Elsinore. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Stephanie Caceres packs her belongings into her car as the Holy fire approaches homes on Sandpiper Drive in Lake Elsinore. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Cal Fire’s Mario Gonzalez keeps an eye on the Holy fire raging near homes in Leach Canyon. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
An air tanker fights the Holy fire, which forced more evacuations of neighborhoods in the Lake Elsinore area Wednesday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
The Holy fire on Wednesday approaches Lake Elsinore’s McVicker Canyon neighborhood, which is under mandatory evacuation orders. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Two men monitor the Holy fire from a rooftop as it approaches the McVicker Canyon neighborhood in Lake Elsinore. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
The Trabuco Canyon home of arson suspect Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, stands untouched amid charred remains in his neighborhood. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Chris O’Neal, a video journalist from Laguna Niguel, is silhouetted by a smoke-obscured sun as a fire helicopter keeps an eye on the Holy fire approaching McVicker Canyon. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
The Holy fire reached very close to homes in a Lake Elsinore neighborhood forcing evacuation and deployment large air tankers. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
The Holy fire burns toward homes in a Lake Elsinore neighborhood, forcing evacuation orders and the deployment of large air tankers. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Smoke from the Holy fire darkens the sky over the Glen Ivy Golf Club as the blaze burns on the mountain ridges around Corona. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
The Holy fire in the Cleveland National Forest pushed closer to some homes Wednesday, prompting a new round of mandatory evacuations. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Lester and Blanca Fronk watch for planes fighting the Holy Fire in Lake Elsinore. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
U.S. Forest Service fire crews make their way to the Holy fire, burning on mountain ridges in the Cleveland National Forest near Corona. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Bob Tyler clears his driveway covered by ashes from Holy Fire falling on his neighborhood of 11000 block of Kingbird Drive in Corona. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
A plane drops fire retardant on the Holy fire burning in Cleveland National Forest above a home in Lake Elsinore on Aug. 7. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
A man prepares to fish as smoke rises from the Holy fire in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore on Aug. 6. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)
It’s been an explosive summer in California, adding to a year of unprecedented fire destruction. Since last fall, thousands of homes have been lost and more than 40 people killed from wine country down to Ventura County. In addition to the lost firefighters, four civilians — including two children — died in the Redding fire.
The fires in July and August have been fueled by record-setting heat, which has left brush bone dry and highly flammable.
The conditions have taken a particular toll on firefighters, who say they’ve been stretched thin as new fires keep breaking out.
On July 14, Braden Varney, a heavy-equipment operator with Cal Fire, died in rugged terrain while fighting the Ferguson blaze. Varney was driving a bulldozer cutting firebreaks when the machine overturned.
Two weeks later, Brian Hughes, captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots, was killed when he was struck by a tree while working with his crew to set a backfire — a tactic designed to limit a fire’s spread — on the east side of that same blaze. He was treated at the scene but died before he could be taken to a hospital.
Then, as the Carr fire exploded into Redding neighborhoods on July 26, Jeremy Stoke, a fire prevention inspector, was killed. Authorities said Stoke “died while working to ensure the residents of west Redding had a chance to escape the flames.”
Some firefighters have been moved from one blaze to another with little time to rest.
At the Mendocino Complex fire in Lake County, which this week became the largest in California history, firefighters were working 24-hour shifts every other day. They had to hike up treacherous slopes into the Mendocino National Forest with heavy backpacks to get to the leading edge of the blaze.
“It’s steep and sometimes dangerous,” Trey Rosenbalm, a firefighter with the Mendocino National Forest Service, said Wednesday from the fire operations center in Ukiah. “You don’t know what your next step is, whether you could go into a ditch or loose brush.”
Rosenbalm had arrived in Mendocino after battling a smaller fire to the north, near the town of Covelo.
On Thursday, crews across the state continued to battle more than a dozen wildfires that have scorched more than 600,000 acres, bolstered by an extremely warm July and years of drought that have left underbrush ripe for burning. There were more signs of progress in areas including Mendocino: that 300,000-acre blaze was now more than 50% contained.
But in Southern California, the Holy fire grew to nearly 10,000 acres, racing to the edge of a subdivision in Lake Elsinore and forcing more evacuations.
On McVicker Canyon Road and Edgewood Drive, Todd Campbell sat on a ladder leaning on his garage. A second ladder leaned on the rooftop.
Despite the evacuation orders, Campbell had stayed behind to protect his two-story home. He was using garden hoses to water his roof, trying to keep an eye on embers that could spark spot fires.
“I put one out on my neighbors’ side,” he said.
For a while, the situation looked grim. Trees swayed as the winds continued to gust. Ash fell from the sky as smoke from the charred canyons reduced visibility.
Above, a DC-10 was dropping fire retardant and helicopters swooped down to make water drops. Still, the flames raged.
“It got to a point where it felt fruitless because of the intensity of the heat and winds,” Campbell said. “It was too overwhelming.”
In the end, the air attacks made a difference.
“The firemen have done a really good job,” Campbell said.
Serna reported from Redding, Vives from Lake Elsinore and Queally from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Alejandra Reyes-Velarde in Ukiah contributed to this story.
Full coverage: California’s summer siege of wildfires »
9 a.m.: This article was updated with Brown comments.
This article was originally published at 5 a.m.