Jeff Jardine

Butte, Old Gulch fire of 1992 have plenty in common

Mailboxes burn during the Butte fire on Jesus Maria Road and Ponteroff Road on Saturday in Calaveras County.
Mailboxes burn during the Butte fire on Jesus Maria Road and Ponteroff Road on Saturday in Calaveras County.

When it comes to fighting wildland fires, experience is the best teacher. The problem is that the lessons too often are learned in arrears and at a tremendous cost of property and sometimes even life. And even when folks heed the warnings, take every precaution and play by the rules, fire exempts itself.

The Butte fire has claimed two lives while burning nearly 72,000 acres, 233 homes and nearly 200 other structures over the past week. The fire’s fury no doubt brought back memories and surpassed in scope and devastation the Old Gulch fire that swept through the area in 1992. That one burned 18,000 acres – including more than 3,500 acres in just over 10 minutes – destroying 42 homes and 43 other buildings. I contributed to The Modesto Bee’s coverage of that fire and found acts of kindness and bravery by the firefighters, residents and neighbors then just as the Butte fire victims and evacuees are experiencing today.

In 1996, I returned to do a story on the burned area’s aftermath, restoration and rebirth. The horrors of the fire still haunted some of the residents, including Art Hastings, who was the battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Arnold and at the time a 33-year-old veteran firefighter.

“I enjoy fighting fires,” he told me. “But when its in your own backyard ... The unfortunate part is that I knew every one of those people who lost their homes.”

He’d repeatedly told many of them to clear brush and trees at least 30 feet away from their homes, which was Cal Fire’s minimum distance of defensible space at the time. Many heeded his warnings and their homes survived. Others didn’t. And he knew for some it wouldn’t matter, just as it didn’t for some victimized by the Butte fire. The fire in certain places would be too devastating under any circumstances.

The common denominators between the two fires?

▪ Both occurred amid severe droughts and 100-degree temperatures. In 1992, the old Parrotts Ferry bridge across the Stanislaus River was well out of the water just as it its today. In normal years, it’s about 150 feet below the surface of New Melones at this time of year. And the Highway 49 bridge at the old town of Melones, also completely exposed in 1992, will emerge sometime during the next few weeks.

▪ Many of the same areas, from Murphys to Sheep Ranch and beyond, were threatened or burned in both fires.

▪ Firefighters in both cases caught breaks from Mother Nature. They gained control of the Old Gulch fire when the wind suddenly reversed direction and gave them the chance to snuff it out. Otherwise, it might have tripled in acreage as it moved north and east, threatening Arnold and Forest Meadows. While the Butte fire continues and was 47 percent contained Wednesday evening, rain and cooler temperatures this week are enabling crews to make significant headway.

▪ Car exhaust along Old Gulch Road in Calaveras County started the 1992 fire. The cause of the Butte fire remains under investigation, centering on Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power lines that might have come into contact with a tree near where the fire started in Amador County, a PG&E spokesman said Wednesday.

“About 95 percent of the fires are sparked by the actions of people,” Cal Fire’s Daniel Berlant said. “They are preventable.”

So, in most cases, are the losses of life and property. Each year, at the season’s end, fire officials review the fires to understand not only the science involved, but ways to limit the scope and damage of future blazes. It involves everything from determining where firefighters and equipment will most likely be needed the next fire season to working with state officials to update building codes to make new construction more fire resistant.

Code changes followed the 1991 East Bay firestorm that claimed 25 lives and 3,000 homes. In 2005, the state extended the defensible space from 30 to 100 feet. Additional code changes followed seven San Diego County wildfires that claimed 10 lives and burned 369,000 acres in 2007, followed by a series of major fires in Northern California that burned more than 1.37 million acres a year later, Berlant said.

“Composite materials that won’t catch fire when embers land on the rooftops,” he said. But those codes only apply to new construction, which includes homes rebuilt after they burned down.

Meanwhile, a 2011 study showed that twice as many Northern California homes were situated within 1 mile of wildfires in 2006 through 2009 than in the 1980s and 1990s. More people are living in the beauty of the woods than ever. In theory, those newer homes built to higher standards and with proper defensible space should have a better chance of surviving fires than the older homes. Those same standards will apply to the homes rebuilt in the areas of the Butte and Valley fires and everywhere else. But while they might be more fire resistant, they’re never fireproof.

Fires behave at the whim of Mother Nature and can quickly turn into an unrelenting, unforgiving and unmerciful fury.

And that is a lesson experienced many times each fire season, and too often with the same results.