With wildfires blazing up and down the state and firefighter resources already stretched to the limit, 40 to 50 loggers and heavy equipment operators from Tubit Enterprises, a Lassen Fire Safe Council contractor working on thinning the forest as part of the Diamond Mountain Project, rose to the occasion and put their expertise and millions of dollars of equipment to work on a different purpose — cutting fire lines around the North Complex, now the Sheep Fire, after lightning ignited five separate fires in the area just a few miles outside Susanville Monday, Aug. 17.
Tom Esgate, executive director of the Lassen Fire Safe Council, said its contractor quickly put its armada of heavy equipment to work fighting the rapidly growing fire instead of thinning the forest.
“Up until Monday, they had three logging sides working on the (Diamond Mountain) project and with the onslaught of the fire on Monday they shifted gears,” Esgate said. “With the scarcity of resources and United States Forest Service personnel to fight the fire, Tubit began putting in lines with feller bunchers and bulldozers in consultation with LFSC’s forester and WM Beaty and Associates personnel.”
Esgate said the LFSC has a contract with the USFS to complete forest thinning on 4,500 acres of federal land near Diamond Mountain. He said the project began last year, and this year it moved into mechanical harvesting and forest thinning with 30 to 50 foot spacing between trees up on the ridge and a 20 million board foot timber sale.
Tubit continued working on the thinning the project Monday, but Esgate said as the fires began to spread, “it became obvious someone had to do something. So they went to work. They’ve got millions and millions of dollars of equipment up there — chippers, skidders, dozers and water trucks. It’s an enormous amount of resources, but at that moment no one was managing the fire. So, they just went to work.”
On Wednesday morning, Esgate said Tubit signed an emergency contract with CalFire to battle the blaze. Esgate said he visited the site of the five fires Monday, “and there just wasn’t a soul out there. Nobody at all. That’s when they decided they had to do something.”
The fire hasn’t “bumped” the areas treated as part of the Diamond Mountain Project as of Wednesday morning, so Esgate said it was too soon to tell how well those lines will hold the fire, but he suspects they may be tested later today.
“Hopefully we won’t get to find that out like we did with the Mahog Fire,” Esgate said. “The stuff they did with Beaty’s direction has held. I know the stuff they’ve started to do has made an impact.
So far, he estimates only about 10 percent of the mechanical thinning had been completed.
Wednesday morning Esgate said the fire had burned about two miles down Gold Run Road from the top of Diamond Mountain.
He said Beaty completed a “rehab” project in the area last year — which may look like a clear cut to the untrained eye — and that may help slow the fire if it gets there.
“It gives the firefighters a substantial anchor point to work off,” Esgate said. “Some of Beaty’s work may pay off.”
Esgate said he hopes the fire doesn’t burn all the way to Susanville, but “CalFire is on it full bore now. Before we didn’t have much.”
Esgate he doesn’t know, but he suspects the fire may have spread from federal land to state land sometime yesterday afternoon, launching the CalFire response. He said the fire started on the Plumas National Forest, and CalFire would have to be invited in to help fight it initially. He said there are protocols in place, but CalFire “certainly jumped when they could.”
And without criticizing the federal response, Esgate said CalFire’s involvement “bodes well for trying to get something done,” Esgate said.
The big problem, according to Esgate, is there are fires burning up and down the state and many resources are not available because they’re already in use in other parts of the state.
“Early on they had some air on it,” Esgate said. “Fires are threatening tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, and that’s sucking up all the resources. Critical initial response things probably just weren’t available,” but he said he was impressed because Monday he saw seven dumps on one small fire before conditions in the atmosphere grounded the aircraft. And he said the Tubit employees reported seeing a helicopter with a bucket working the fire on Tuesday.