Fire Siege of 1987 Remembered

Happy Camp “87 fire by Jim Waddell Happy Camp “87 Fire by Kerry Waddell

20th Anniversary of Fire Siege ’87

The above photos of Happy Camp during the ’87 fires are by Jim Waddell and Kerry Waddell respectively. Thank you for sharing the photos with Happy Camp News readers!

Just two days before Labor Day, 1987, after a summer of rainless heat had baked the woods to kindling, over 11,000 lightning strikes hit and the western states began to burn. During the following 8 weeks the worst fires in nearly 100 years devastated 9 states, including 1,300 square miles in California and Oregon. The wildfire devastation included 406 square miles of the Klamath National Forest and became known as “Fire Siege ’87”.

During the first week of the fires 1,274 people were involved with fighting 20,675 acres of wildfires on the Klamath National Forest. By the eighth week 75 wildfires had burned a total of 258,764 acres, or 15%, of the 1.7 million land base of the Klamath National Forest.

The lives of three firefighters were claimed by “Fire Siege ’87” on the Klamath National Forest. Heavy smoke trapped by temperature inversions plagued firefighters and rural residents for weeks on end. Firefighters from across the country, including U.S. military, federal,  state and county agencies, as well local residents joined forces to combat the fires. At the peak some 8,003 people battled the wildfires.

The parallels between “Fire Siege ’87” and the recent China-Back and Elk Complexes are impressive,  stated Forest Supervisor Peg Boland. “It takes all of us working together to manage a major fire suppression incident. The help we recently experienced is an excellent example of working together to successfully achieve a common goal that benefited the communities as well as National Forest natural resources.”

Elk Fire Complex Town Meeting for Happy Camp

Crowds at the Town Meetings have noticeably thinned. There was no one from the Sheriff’s Department advising us on evacuation plans. There was no one from the National Type 1 Team under Mike Dietrich because the teams changed on Monday. Kent Swartzlander, Incident Commander a couple of weeks ago, and his team are back to work on the fire for the next couple of weeks.

All the news was good news. While there were questions, more than one citizen in the meeting made a point to say “thank you” to the firefighters for their work and professionalism and for keeping us informed.

They are still watching, patrolling and mopping up. Elk Creek Road is still closed at Five-mile Bridge.

Phyllis Swanson, who wore a National Park Service patch on her shoulder, was the Public Information Officer who began the meeting. Don Hall, Deputy District Ranger was back from a few days off, which we were glad to hear. Fatigue management is important in keeping our firefighters and all of the planning and support personnel safe. Being overly fatigued from too many 14 to 16 hour days is a good way to have casualties.

Harold Tripp of Karuk Department of Natural Resources says that he was very pleased with both teams that have been here working these fires. He said it used to be that he didn’t like some of the back burns, but when done carefully, keeping low intensity and slowly creeping down hill, he has seen how very effective it can be.

Present manpower is about 900 firefighters and in the next four or five days it will be reduced to half that. At the same time, they will continue to monitor and patrol, and there will be restoration and repair projects going on.

The nice thing about these public Town Meetings is the opportunity to meet new residents to Happy Camp. It was an added joy and good occasion when we face possible disaster together. The main theme of tonight’s meeting was that we are very grateful for the work, skill, and abilities of the firefighting teams who save our town and community!

ONE LAST THING, this story could have had a much more disastrous ending if it had not been for our Fire Safe Council. They have worked for the last few years to put a ring of protection around our community so that a wildfire coming our way could be more easily controlled. If you appreciate their work, please tell them so. Better yet, volunteer to help them as they are very busy people who put in a great many hours to help the community in this way. Duane Armbruster, 493-2740, also put up the sign, by the car wash. George Harper, Carol Sharpe, and George Bernhard are crucial personnel on this volunteer organization that helps keep us safe from fire.

Helicopter Accident on Elk Complex Fires, Happy Camp, California

YREKA, CA – The victim of yesterday’s helicopter crash has been identified as Dennis Luster Davis, 61, of Boise, ID.  Davis was a pilot for Idaho Helicopters, Inc., also of Boise, ID, and flew a Bell 205, type 2 helicopter, tail number 205BR. Davis’ helicopter crashed at 10:15 am as he was providing logistical support to crews fighting the Elk Fire. The Elk fire is one of 30 fires within the Elk Complex; 24 of the 30 fires are 100% contained.

At 12 p.m. yesterday, aviation operations were suspended on the Elk Complex.  Suspending air operations is routine following aviation accidents.  Aviation resources resumed regular operations this morning.

A USDA Forest Service National Accident Investigation Team under the leadership of Jim Sedell arrived today, and has initiated their investigation.

Additional information may be obtained online at http://www.inciweb.org or http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/klamath or by calling (530) 841-4451.

Monday Accident on Elk Fire Complex

By Judy Bushy

The news on the Elk Fire Complex had particularly encouraged those involved because of only minor injuries. An amazing feat, since the fires are in steep isolated terrain that in some cases is very treacherous. Fire fighters are working in one of the most dangerous of professions. Today, however, the news has come that this morning shortly after ten oclock, a type 2 helicopter went down in the Norcross Area. Officials have confirmed that there was a fatality.

When the threat of wildfire comes against a community, we cheer and thank the firefighters who come in to save our town, our homes, and perhaps the lives of many in the face of wildfire. Sometimes in the fighting of the fire, some even loose their lives. Our heroes are not invincible. Perhaps that is why they are our heroes, knowing the risks, they gave their all in trying to protect people in a remote community.

Our thoughts and prayers go out for the family and friends of the helicopter crew. If we could, we would give them a collective hug from the whole community. We had hoped that such a sad tragedy would not occur here. It has been a somber day in Happy Camp.

Monday Update on Elk Fire Complex

ELK FIRE COMPLEX UPDATE

July 23, 2007

Total Complex Acreage: 9,085 acres

Incident Resources: 1,145 personnel

Total Complex Containment: 22% 

Expected Full Containment: 7/29/2007Cost to Date: $8,201,274

Injuries to Date (minor): 8

Structures Threatened: 550

The top priority is the protection of the Happy Camp, Hamburg, and Elk Creek communities. Yesterday, crews made great progress constructing fireline (see list below). The burnout on the Little Grider Fire began yesterday and initial results were positive. An increase in smoke is expected in the Happy Camp area. Additional fire activity was observed as a result of a warming trend.

Complex Fire Details

Of the thirty identified fires in the Elk Complex, 24 fires are 100% contained. The fires will continue to be monitored, patrolled and staffed as resources allow. The remaining six fires are as follows:

  • Little Grider Fire (1,952 acres) 50% contained. The first stage of the Perkins Gulch burnout was conducted and yielded beneficial results.
  • King Creek II Fire (2895 acres) 25 % contained. Firefighters made significant progress on the fire’s southern and western perimeters.
  • Wingate (916 acres) 5% contained. Crews established a line from Titus Ridge west to the Klamath River.
  • Elk Fire (1144 acres) 40% contained. Crews are camped near the fire and continue containment efforts.
  • Titus Fire (2026 acres) 5% contained. A recommended evacuation for homeowners, and closure for campers and miners, from Five Mile Bridge to Norcross Campground on Elk Creek Road remains in placeFirelines have been constructed around structures.
  • Hummingbird Fire (80 acres) 0% contained.

 Evacuation Planning:

The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office has taken steps to locate an evacuation center at Seiad Elementary School in the event evacuation becomes necessary.  Individuals with special needs, such as those requiring mobility assistance, need to notify the Sheriff’s Office ahead of time.

In the event of an evacuation, small animals will be accepted at Seiad Elementary and large animals may be taken to the Karuk Ranch at China Grade Road at the two-mile marker.  All animal owners are asked to be responsible for the feeding and care of their pets at both locations.

Elk Complex Fire Updated at Friday’s Happy Camp Meeting

Friday’s Town Hall meeting at the Happy Camp Grange was smaller than previous meetings. While it is encouraging that the residents of Happy Camp feel safer, communication is a vital part of being in the midst of a wildfire crisis. The threat is abated with the rain and cooler temperatures, but with another two months of fire season to go, and several active fires in the vicinity, the crisis isn’t over yet.

Don Hall, Deputy District Ranger, spoke to the questions about what ‘you guys’ are doing. He drove down Curly Jack showing the Klamath National Forest Supervisor what was happening and there were hotshot crews next door to his own home. Teams were going door to door on Curly Jack Road, Division L for evacuation purposes, and informing residents of precautions and preparations. At his home, in the early morning hours, smoke was wafting up from the Wingate, also. So it isn’t ‘those guys’ – it is our neighbors involved. Those from far away usually live in a place where they also experience this same crisis. So the people making the decisions about this fire are not only considering public safety from a professional level but also feel it very personally.

Just a few days ago the wind was 20 to 30 mph, the temperatures were going over 100, we had raging crown fires and lots of smoke. They were planning to build a protected box like area around the town.

Then the rain slowed things down. The crews didn’t sit back and relax. They have put in 30 miles of bulldozer line and 34 miles of hand lines and brush clearing. That’s a lot of hard work but the forest dries out fast at 100-degree heat. On Wednesday afternoon the Wingate fire had showed what it could do when it traveled 2+½ miles in four hours! We are grateful for only one additional injury and that it was minor.

They are ready to go on more direct attack where possible. In some areas that are ‘steeper than a cow’s face’ Dietrich said that they are too steep and too isolated and couldn’t get a dozer in unless they park it in the river, ‘which is not cool.’ Firefighters are too dear to risk to rock climbing challenges. As Incident commander, Mike Dietrich also mentioned that everyone in the country is working with fires in Idaho, Utah and Nevada as well as elsewhere.

Sheriff’s Dept, Sgt John Evans said Seiad School remains the emergency evacuation site and signs have been posted. Be prepared, and once you do clear evacuation areas, keep the roads clear and don’t block the firefighters work.

Kirk Eadie, Assistant Chief of the Happy Camp Volunteers, also said we need to keep “heads up”. Keep informed. Be ready and be prepared. We appreciate Mike Dietrich and his team keeping us informed so we don’t fall to senseless rumors but can know the truth.

Harold Tripp, with the Karuk Tribe, said it is great working on this team with Don and Alan, Happy Camp District Ranger. His job is to inform firefighting teams about protecting any cultural sensitive areas and he was glad that the fire has not destroyed any sites. The dozer lines are following previous lines as much as possible.

Questions from the gathered Happy Camp citizens involved bringing their horses home, how long the river would be closed to rafting, and how the fire will affect the river view. Many questions have to wait to see what happens in the next four or five days but the team is doing all it can to limit the intensity and severity of damage to as much land as possible and ensure public safety and protect lives of both community and firefighters. Thankfully injuries have been minor considering the harsh terrain where the fires are located. Next meeting is scheduled at the Grange on Tuesday, July 24th at 7 o’clock.

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