PINERIDGE, Calif. (CN) — Ty Gillett could see the plume of smoke billowing on the horizon and held out hope the fire would keep to higher elevations and spare his hometown of Pineridge, California. But hope was not enough that morning.
Pineridge is one of several unincorporated foothill communities interspersed in the mountains outside of Fresno, dappling the densely forested hillsides near Shaver Lake.
Gillett has lived there all his life, recreating on the Sierra National Forest, going to Sierra High School and recently purchasing Cressman’s general store — a local icon that dates back to 1904 where locals and visitors alike can grab a bite to eat, some gas for the car or some bait and tackle for a fishing trip.
“Growing up, you always knew a big fire could happen,” Gillett said. “We’ve had little fires before, but they’ve always caught them.”
But early September presented the worst of weather conditions: daytime highs over 100 degrees, low humidity and steady winds capable of driving a big fire where it will.
“The fire started in between Big Creek and Shaver Lake, which is pretty far away,” Gillett said. “We were hoping it would stay up the hill.”
But just to be safe, Gillett felled about 50 trees around the general store and started taking various water pumps and hoses to the property, confident he could mount a defense if the fire took a turn for his community.
The Creek Fire, as it is known, did turn and when it came it did so with a ferocity Gillett would’ve never imagined.
“I didn’t think the fire could come that far that fast,” he said. “When it got there the flames were about 200 or 300 feet high and there were baseball-sized pieces of wood that were on fire raining down all around us.”
A couple of fire engines showed up and tried to stave off the inferno alongside Gillett and his friends.
But to no avail.
“Those guys felt so bad to leave it,” Gillett said. “But it came down to the fact that we had to get out of there or we were going to die.”
So, Gillett, his friend Dylan and the firefighters all raced down Route 168 toward Fresno. At a vista point, Gillett arrested his flight to turn around and look back one last time.
“The whole ridgeline was on fire,” he said. “It took like two minutes to burn.”
The Creek Fire is one of 29 major fires currently burning in California, though dozens more smolder or are too “small” to be considered “major.” Wildfires have so far scorched about 3.4 million acres in California during the 2020 fire season. In 2018, widely considered to be the worst fire season in state history, 1.9 million acres of forest went up in smoke. At least 25 people have died from the fires this year — and really, the fire season has just begun.
Lightning storms in August, combined with dry hot weather, ample winds and overgrown grasslands and forests have combined to set California ablaze.
The Creek Fire is not the largest or deadliest of the 2020 season.
The August Complex, burning in the Mendocino National Forest in the northern third of the state, has charred about 840,000 acres and continues to grow. It is the largest fire in recorded state history.
Across the northern San Joaquin Valley, the North Complex continues to burn near Paradise, the site of the state’s deadliest wildfire where 85 people perished in the flames during the Camp Fire in 2018. And like the Camp Fire, the North Complex caught several small mountain communities by surprise, killing at least a dozen people while several more are missing.
While the Creek Fire may not be the largest of the deadliest of the season, it encapsulates the problem facing California as it deals with its fourth consecutive season of devastating large-scale fires.
The Sierra National Forest is the epicenter of the epic tree mortality event that has stricken much of the forests of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
“Fresno County has been identified as one of the areas with the highest tree mortalities in the state,” said Edwin Zuniga, a firefighter with Cal Fire. “These trees pose a threat to all the firefighters working on the ground because they fall with little to no warning.”
Dead trees can get blown over by the wind and once they catch fire, they are particularly susceptible to tumbling.
“We know they’re going to fall, so we just try to identify them and work around them,” said Matt Kaufman, a firefighter with Cal Fire. “The dead ones we know are going to burn out and fall at nighttime, we avoid those areas best we can.”
Kaufman was taking a quick break on Route 168 off the shoulder of Huntington Lake on Wednesday, as the smoke continued to billow. The heart of the inferno had moved west into the national forest, much the way Gillett had initially hoped. But forecasts calling for the winds to turn and ramp up mean Kaufman and his fellow firefighters had to cut lines using the Sierra’s granite to provide a backstop for some of the houses dotting the shores of the lake.
“It’s been a haul,” he said.
California Governor Newsom mentioned the dead trees during a press conference Wednesday. He attributed much of the tree mortality to an intense drought that spanned from 2012 to 2017, which killed some trees and left others susceptible to the ravages of invasive beetles.
All told, about 160 million trees died during the period. Many remain standing, waiting to fall.
“Obviously, that is a recipe for very challenging conditions,” Newsom said.
He spent time with President Donald Trump on Monday and tried to convince him that climate change is a major factor in creating conditions conducive for megafires.
Newsom’s concentration on climate change was echoed by fellow Democratic governors Kate Brown of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington state, both of which are being ravaged by wildfires.
Trump and Republicans, meanwhile, say the forests have been mismanaged and blame environmental regulations that prevent logging that would naturally thin out the forests of the American West.
“I think this is more of a [forest] management situation,” Trump said during a Monday press conference in Sacramento.
Experts say it’s both.
Tim Ingalsbee, the founder of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, said forest managers in California have been slow to embrace the concept of “good fire” or using controlled burns to reduce the amount of fuels in the forest.
“We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load,” Ingalsbee told ProPublica on Thursday.
It’s a practice that dates to Native Americans who routinely used fire to keep back the underbrush.
Other experts would like to see more initiative put into forest-thinning projects while removing dead trees like the ones threatening the firefighters working the Creek Fire.
But there are cost considerations as such thinning projects are expensive. Nearly 60% of the forested land in California is managed by the federal government, and the U.S. Forest Service has seen its budget for thinning projects decimated under Trump.
Also, it is unclear whether such projects would be able to prevent some of the worst fires.
The Camp Fire, for instance, was so profoundly furious due to a combination of topography and weather.
“It was more like a bomb than a fire,” said Daniel Ramey, a firefighter working the Creek Fire who was in Paradise the day after the fire devastated most of the town. “It melted the metal off of cars.”
Fierce winds drove the fire into the valley where Paradise was nestled. Once the blaze reached the outskirts, no amount of defensible space would have helped.
Gillett saw something similar with the Creek Fire. He tried to create defensible space around his store by felling trees and was still overrun by the flames.
“That flame had a full head of steam so there’s nothing you can do,” Kaufman said.
Also, the weather conspired with the fire as an unprecedented heatwave coincided with lightning storms to spark blazes up and down the state. The heat, lack of humidity and then the appearance of wind meant that some of the destruction was inevitable.
All of which lends credence to a changing climate being a factor in the worsening of the Golden State’s wildfire season.
Nevertheless, Ramey said Sierra National Forest workers had carried out multiple thinning projects in proximity to communities surrounding Shaver Lake that made a huge difference in their outcomes.
“A lot of those houses would be gone if it wasn’t for those projects,” he said.
So while politicians continue to fight over whether forest management or a changing climate is the real culprit, the real answer is that it’s a mixture of both.
The press can travel into regions of a forest fire closed to the general public, as long as we stay out of the way of firefighting operations.
So when I called Gillett to talk to him about his experiences he asked me if I saw his store.
“Yeah,” I said.
“It probably doesn’t look too good right now,” he said.
“Nope,” I answered. “It’s gone.”
And it is. Ty Gillett’s livelihood is reduced to rubble for now. He lost his home too.
“In hindsight, I could’ve probably grabbed a few more things from the house, but we went all out trying to save the store,” he said.
Gillett spends his days on the phone with banks and insurance company representatives. He’s upbeat, confident he will get his business and his house rebuilt and running in the near future.
“People have rebuilt before so there’s no reason I can’t do it,” he said. “What am I gonna do, quit? If guys like me bail and quit, then everybody will.”
Driving around Pineridge you see the ghost of a forest, with dead trees keeled over and ash and smoke thick in the air. Leave your car for a couple of minutes and it’s covered in a layer of ash when you come back.
The smoke banked down on the contours of the topography makes it difficult to see. But if you squint you can barely make out the shape of the mountain communities that inspire such pride and appreciation.
And after talking to Gillett, one can also spy the shape of resilience.