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Investigation into fire continues as responders deem it ‘the perfect storm’

Scorching heat, high winds, low humidity and shake-shingle roofs all converged
By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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Roseville firefighter Greg James walks through a charred landscape of black ground and brittle wood, the 103-degree heat permeating every coal-colored shape he sees. James was in the same area two weeks ago during the worst urban interface fire Roseville has experienced in years; but as the smoke clears and the investigation moves forward, news that 19 firefighters were killed in another state has left Roseville’s team convinced it did everything it could to protect homes and lives without its own firefighters experiencing a similar tragedy.

A release of call logs and documents from the Roseville Fire Department is offering new insight into how the Maidu fire became momentarily overpowering for local firefighters as it swept up to a neighborhood and burned five structures.

The fire appears to have started around 2:25 p.m.

Initially reported as the type of grass fire that’s not unusual in wooded patches of the city, Roseville Fire launched a low-level response, dispatching fire engines from the stations near the hospital and Sunrise Avenue and Cirby Way. Roseville Battalion Chief Kevin Morris was the incident commander. Though the fire appeared small at first, Morris called for a precautionary third engine to head his way.

Roseville firefighters were soon near where the fire had started. At that point, a high wind drove in, casting embers skyward, causing taller trees to start torching.

“We all thought it was going to be over pretty quick,” James remembers, hunching down near a burned-out stump of soot. “But then we heard Chief Morris calling for more and more resources to come.”

Morris knew CAL FIRE reports indicated fuel moisture conditions and overall dryness were a worst-case scenario for most of Northern California. The battalion chief radioed for two more fire engines 14 minutes into the incident. Five minutes later, Morris was calling for three more engines.

A curtain of flames pushed south through the weeds and woods, riding sudden 16-mile-an-hour winds as it blazed in the direction of the homes on McLaren Drive. Around the same time, the outside humidity dropped. Morris called for two structure-protection engines and a ladder truck. Minutes later he asked for five more engines, another chief officer and a helicopter from Sacramento Metro Fire.

By the time the helicopter was overhead, it was clear the fire was building into what’s known as a vortex within the winds: The pilot reported seeing rows of embers being whirled through the air the size of “flaming baseballs.” Hot spots were erupting everywhere below. The burning tracks grew so hot in the fast breezes that ash began snowing down 10 miles away in the city of Folsom.

As residents near McLaren Drive watched a wall of fire move toward their homes, some questioned why Roseville’s responders were not hitting it directly from the front.

“Twenty years ago we used to take a fire head-on and take its main hotspot,” recalls Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Carman. “But firefighters got killed that way. Now we get in behind the fire, running flanking maneuvers from the sides and pinching the head from the back. When you’re standing in fuel and fire is coming at you, that’s when you can’t get away. It the type of thing they think happened to the 19 firefighters who just died yesterday in Arizona.”

Carmen added, “To give you an idea of how powerful the Maidu fire got, we had two deck guns firing 3,000 gallons of water at it while it was moving toward the houses, and that wasn’t even slowing it down.”

With Rocklin Fire, CAL FIRE, Loomis Fire, Lincoln Fire, Sacramento Fire and South Placer Fire Protection District sweeping in to help, Morris began to get more control over the situation.

“We had allied agencies treating each structure fire as an incident within an incident,” Morris explained. “Structures didn’t just get hosed and abandoned; they got all of the work that’s necessary in a full-on structure fire. Agencies like South Placer Fire really did a good job to protect those houses.”

Ultimately, 47 fire engines and 180 firefighters from around Placer and Sacramento counties protected Roseville homes and collapsed the Maidu fire by attacking it from different directions. Roseville fire investigators are working with one of CAL FIRE’s experts in wildland fire investigation and officers from the Roseville Police Department to determine who committed the reported act of arson. In the meantime, Carmen believes there are lessons that can be taken from the Maidu incident, starting from the fact that the county’s evacuation alert only worked for residents with landline phones to the types of roofing homeowners had near the wooded area.

“Placer County is getting a new emergency alert system that will have access to cellphones,” Carmen pointed out. “Also, if you look at all of the structures that caught on fire, they all had shake-shingle roofs. The houses in the same neighborhood with tile roof or composite roof didn’t catch. I think those shingle roofs were just another factor, along with the winds, the fuel moisture conditions, the lack of humidity and the overall heat. It’s a cliché, but it really was the perfect storm.”