July 27, 2021

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Lava Fire apology: Crews had left before the blaze exploded – San Francisco Chronicle

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The official in charge of fighting fires along the slopes of Mount Shasta apologized to residents evacuated from the Lava Fire, saying crews initially left after they thought they had extinguished a tiny fire on Friday only to have the blaze reignite an hour later and grow to more than 13,000 acres by Tuesday.

“I apologize for that getting out,” said Todd Mack, Shasta Trinity National Forest fire management officer, during a town hall meeting on Monday night, according to video reviewed by The Chronicle. “I’ll take the heat for that … I will own that.”

The fire has forced 8,000 residents to evacuate and it was 20% contained as of Tuesday evening.

In recent years, firefighters have sought to respond quickly to new blazes to prevent the kinds of infernos that have torn through places like Paradise and Santa Rosa. Mack said crews tracked the blaze in Siskiyou County Thursday after detecting lightning strikes and then navigated rugged, rocky terrain from the lava flows cascading down Mount Shasta on Friday morning.

But when the crews believed the ¼-acre fire was extinguished around 4 p.m. Friday they left the site, Shasta Trinity National Forest spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman said. They planned to watch it from afar and return at 6 the following morning for further monitoring.

An hour later, the fire restarted, she said. Fire crews returned but were unable to control it.

“They got in with an initial attack and they got beat,” Mack said. “It happens sometimes and is not the intended outcome, not what we want. We’re all disappointed that this happened, but it happened.”

The missteps have upset residents who have evacuated their homes along Highway 97 and in the Weed area. The fire jumped the freeway on Monday after tripling in size, stoked by 50 mph winds, low humidity and triple-digit temperatures. Three other fires that had been sparked Thursday in the forest by lightning were quickly extinguished.

Around 800 fire personnel worked the fire Tuesday, but residents complained that Cal Fire was initially released from the fight because it was on federal land.

Chelsey Meadows, a fourth-generation Siskiyou County resident, is not evacuated, but her sister, who lost her home in the 2014 Boles Fire, is staying with her after she was forced to leave with her family this weekend. She said she believed the fire should have been monitored longer, especially due to the dangerous conditions.

“In my opinion it should have been an all-hands-on-deck approach — especially due to the rapid spread of the fire,” Meadows said. “The magnitude that this fire has reached could have been prevented if more agencies would have been allowed to be involved. There is no excuse for such tragedy when there are resources available to combat this fire and simply were not used because it was on federal land.”

The Boles Fire burned nearly 500 acres near Weed and destroyed 150 houses.

Suzi Brady, Cal Fire spokeswoman for the Siskiyou County area, said Cal Fire was initially dispatched to the fire Thursday, but released the same day “due to the incident being on federal land.”

“They made the decision that was in front of them at the time,” Brady said. Freeman said the decision to release Cal Fire was mutual.

The feds took heat on social media and in Monday’s community meeting. One resident told Mack he was disappointed in the response, and said the large-scale response now battling the wildfire should have been deployed earlier.

“If you would’ve done that Saturday morning we wouldn’t be in the situation we are right now,” the man said. “I’m just disturbed by that.”

Even after the fire reignited Friday afternoon, by 8 a.m. Saturday, the feds said it was still only two acres and 50% contained. By 5 p.m., the fire had grown to about 80 acres and the first evacuation warnings went out. By nightfall, the blaze had grown to 220 acres, but conditions had calmed, federal officials said in a series of social media posts.

By the end of Sunday, when Cal Fire was brought back into the fight, the fire had grown to 550 acres, federal officials said. There were no structures burned and only minor injuries to firefighters.

Freeman said that the Lava Fire presented unusual firefighting conditions, due to the volcanic history. When firefighters prematurely left the fire Friday, “no heat was detected on the fire,” she said. Firefighters dumped more than 7,000 gallons on the small fire to “drown it and get into all the nooks and crannies,” she said. Firefighters removed their gloves to check for heat on the lava.

However, lava tubes can run under flows, and Mack told a local newspaper he believed vegetation in those underground passages could have allowed an undetected fire to extend outside the containment lines. Officials have not determined how the fire reignited, Freeman said. Either way, she stressed that despite leaving the scene, crews had eyes on the area of the slope, which enabled them to return quickly to the site once it flared up.

“The expertise on the ground called it contained,” Mack told the crowd Monday. “There was no smoke. We patrolled it a couple of times, drove off and we were going to have resources come back.

“That unfortunately happens from time to time,” he said. “That’s not what we’re after, it’s not what we preach and practice, but it happens.”

Staff writer Omar Shaikh Rashad contributed to this report.

Matthias Gafni is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: matthias.gafni@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @mgafni

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