STANISLAUS NATIONAL FOREST — Recently, lightning struck on of all places Lightning Mountain in the Stanislaus National Forest's Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.
A lookout saw the smoke and contacted U.S. Forest Service fire officials.
"We brought in some smoke jumpers to snuff it out," said Chris Schow, fire management officer for the Stanislaus National Forest.
Likewise, crews extinguished a small fire at the Niagara Creek campground a few days ago because it was reported quickly and was easily accessible. In fact, the federal, state and local fire crews annually stop hundreds of small fires in the Sierra and foothills from becoming bigger and quite possibly huge ones.
Even so, no one is getting complacent or cocky. The next big one is inevitable, lurking and just one nasty electrical storm or stupid camper moment away. The 146,000-acre Stanislaus Complex fire in 1987, the Ackerson and Rogge fires that combined to char 60,000 acres in 1997, the 18,000-acre Old Gulch fire in 1992 and the 14,300-acre Darby fire in 2001 all left searing memories no one is anxious to relive.
So did smaller but deadly wildfires, which don't have to be humongous to threaten those who fight them. A 600-acre fire in 2004 turned quickly, trapping a state helitack crew and killing Turlock's Eva Schicke while injuring five other firefighters. The 19 firefighters killed in Arizona last month tried to contain a wind-driven fire at 2,000 acres. It reached 8,400 acres and a million tears before it was extinguished.
That it's been a dozen years since the last five-digit-acreage blaze in the Stanislaus National Forest seems miraculous.
Dry years, undergrowth fuel risk
In dry years, the forest becomes a tinderbox. And when rainfall is higher than average or comes late in the season, it can produce more undergrowth and thus more fuel that eventually will dry out. Consider it kindling for the next big bonfire.
So every year is projected as a bad year until the fire season ends without a major conflagration, at which point officials can deem it a good year.
Either way, conditions are ripe for a big-time barbecue. Summer thunderstorms bring lightning strikes. Campers don't always take care of their campfires or follow the rules during high-danger times.
"The forest is not in a natural state," Schow said. "We've had 100 years of fire protection. When we do get fires, they can burn hotter and more intensely."
Indeed, until the early 1900s, forest fires often ran their course because man lacked the resources or manpower to stop them.
How has the Stanislaus forest avoided a major blaze for so long? It certainly helps that the various fire agencies the Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and local departments work well together.
Crews work to reduce fuel by clearing high-danger areas, using fire to prevent fire with prescribed burns. But they cannot possibly clean an entire Stanislaus National Forest carpet that covers nearly 900,000 acres and spans four counties.
Officials also rely on a rapid response by fire crews, as was the case at Lightning Mountain, along with detection technology, prescribed burns, public awareness campaigns and some old-fashioned networking.
"We can't do much about the lightning strikes," Schow said. "We've done a good job of keeping the human starts down."
Lucky timing, lots of watchers
Even with all of the above, officials know they've been lucky. They haven't been hit with a problematic fire during the times when their firefighters and equipment were summoned to fight blazes elsewhere across the West.
That involves some very good luck.
At the lower elevations, fires can threaten entire communities, as was the case for Avery and Arnold during the 1992 Old Gulch fire that burned all the way from Highway 49 to east of Highway 4.
Officials long have relied on lookout towers. At one point, the Stanislaus forest had 24 of them, but now there are three Mount Elizabeth near Twain Harte, and the Pilot Peak and Smith Peak towers in the Groveland Ranger District. Lumberjacks, cattlemen, campers and others who see or smell smoke while in the woods also report their findings to authorities.
Airplane and helicopter pilots frequently fly over the forest looking for smoke or flames, targeting areas hit by lightning strikes. That enables them to get crews on the ground to extinguish them before they become a problem.
Fire detection technology is improving. Capital Public Radio last week told of how University of Nevada at Reno scientists have attached hi-def, infrared cameras to earthquake monitors mounted on Sierra peaks.
This gives everyone fire officials as well as those whose homes are threatened the ability to see a fire as it develops. The system relies on people networking through social media, phone trees, etc., whenever someone sees smoke. It could expedite the evacuation process, getting homeowners to safety more quickly, and giving firefighters on the ground more information for their safety, too.
That system isn't available in the massive Stanislaus National Forest, though.
Fire officials there know that a series of lightning strikes or a poorly timed bit of camper stupidity could undo what nature built so beautifully and what they've protected so well for so long.