Mount Tam wildfires highlight disaster risks

A smoker who started a fire at Lake Bon Tempe last month could have started a dreaded conflagration that would engulf Mount Tamalpais. But fortune has smiled on the county, said Don Wick, chief ranger of the Marin Municipal Water District.

“I’m a real lucky guy, and we were lucky that day,” said Wick, who helps oversee the 22,000-acre watershed.

The fire started just after 9:30 a.m. on June 16 along the eastern shore of Lake Bon Tempe, about 3 miles south of Fairfax. Fire investigators later determined that the blaze was accidentally started by a 90-year-old man who smoked near the lake in violation of smoking bans in the watershed.

Luckily for the firefighters, the conditions were in their favour. Mid-morning temperatures were cool and the wind was blowing from the north, directing the fire towards the lake shore rather than the grassy hills and nearby stands of dead trees.

District rangers were also notified shortly after the fire started by a resident who had seen the fire and had gone to a nearby ranger station to report it.

“We were extremely lucky,” Wick said. “If the winds had kicked the other way, they would have pushed him towards the dry grass on the hill. There was a lot that was on our side.

About 50 minutes later, the fire was contained to 2 acres. By the time the Lake County Cal Fire helicopter arrived, the fire was out.

But if the fire had happened later in the day when the gusty winds intensified, or if a resident hadn’t been in the area to report the blaze to nearby rangers, a different story would have could unfold.

“In this case, we caught it on a few acres, but all of these things can cause significant casualties in this county,” said Chief Jason Weber of the Marin County Fire Department. “All it takes is a spark. If it’s public smoking, fireworks, or other careless behavior, it can really ruin people’s lives or even cost them their lives.

Mount Tamalpais has not seen a major fire in nearly 80 years. The absence of fire has allowed the mountain’s vegetation and trees to grow and encroach on new areas over the decades.

The risk of a major wildfire has also been greatly increased by diseases such as sudden oak death, the proliferation of highly flammable invasive brush and extreme weather, all of which have been exacerbated by climate change. And the past decade has been dominated by years of drought, including one of the worst droughts on record.

“We’re kind of a sitting duck, if you will,” Weber said.

The close call was enough to stoke the concerns of nearby residents, prompting the Marin Municipal Water District to schedule a discussion for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to review what happened and consider how to respond.

“The reality is we dodged a bullet,” said Fairfax resident Tom McAfee, “because if it had happened six hours later, it probably would have spread to nearby vegetation and trees. was a huge danger.”

Fairfax resident Peter Anderson, 80, was the first person to arrive at the scene of the fire.

Anderson, who hikes near the lake three to four times a week with his partner, was on a trail near the shore when he saw smoke and heard a faint cry for help. After running about 100 feet down the trail to the top of a hill, he found the 90-year-old man lying on the ground.

“His clothes were on fire and he was surrounded by burning leaves and grass,” Anderson said. “The fire just exploded. It was spreading in all directions, but especially in the direction of the lake.

After putting out the man’s clothes, Anderson said he tried to put out the flames on the nearby tree before turning around and seeing the man’s clothes had reignited.

Smothering the flames again, Anderson said he feared they could both be trapped if the winds changed direction. Anderson said the man was able to stand and the two made it to the Lagunitas Lake trailhead after about 10 minutes. All the while, Anderson said he had no cell service.

Fire crews began arriving soon after and the injured man was taken to a burns clinic for treatment.

“He was in shock but he was able to talk to me,” Anderson said. “If he hadn’t been able to get up, I don’t know what I could have done.”

The man’s name has not been released. Weber and Wick said they were unaware of the man’s condition and said he was unlikely to be cited or charged.

Anderson, who once served on the Water District Citizens’ Advisory Committee, renewed his calls for the agency to increase ranger staff and patrols on the mountain.

“We’re up there almost every day and I talk to others every day. We never see the rangers,” Anderson said. “It’s not the rangers’ fault. They have 20,000 acres to watch and they are inundated with 3 million or more visitors a year.

The district employs six rangers, down from 12 in 1995. Of the six rangers, two are away for health issues, Wick said, leaving four to patrol a watershed nearly three-quarters the size of San Francisco. .

“We’re pretty stretched,” Wick said.

The district is looking to hire a seventh ranger, though it had to dip into millions of dollars in reserve funds to cover losses from two years of drought and the coronavirus pandemic, council member Larry Bragman said. of district administration.

Rangers are required to have multiple training certifications as wildland firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and sworn law enforcement officers.

“We are definitely listening and trying to respond responsibly to public concerns,” Bragman said. “These are not easy positions to fill because they really have a triple background.”

The fire also raised the issue of cell phone service in the watershed. Although there are cell towers in the area, several locations have spotty or non-existent service, making it difficult for visitors to report emergencies.

“I think we can probably work with them to get a map of cell coverage in the watershed so we can figure out what we have,” Bragman said. “The other thing could be that we could possibly look at the feasibility of installing boosters in the watershed that would allow us to get cover in all the holes that we think might need that kind of cover.”

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