The Bear Fire 'smoldered for weeks,' then destroyed a town. Was Forest Service slow to fight it?

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Started by a lightning strike in mid-August, the Bear Fire had been burning for weeks in the rugged mountain terrain of the Plumas National Forest — attracting comparatively little attention from the public or media as much larger wildfires burned elsewhere in Northern California.

And then on Tuesday, with fierce Diablo winds blowing, it turned into a monster. By Wednesday, it had destroyed much of the tiny community of Berry Creek, had killed three people and was threatening the city of Oroville.

The sudden devastation left some local officials irate and defeated Berry Creek residents vowing never to return to the area. Bill Connelly, a Butte County supervisor who represents Berry Creek, faulted the U.S. Forest Service, which is overseeing the firefighting effort, for not getting the Bear Fire under control sooner.

“They let this fire smolder for weeks,” he told The Sacramento Bee. “They could have put it out. This is procrastination from the U.S. Forest Service, and we’re paying the price.”

James Gallagher, a Republican state Assemblyman who represents the area, said he’s hearing similar concerns from his constituents after an “extremely hairy night.”

“I think there’s a lot of questions about why that got left burning,” he said.

The Forest Service defended its work on the Bear Fire, saying it had made headway despite strained resources. Bruce Prud’homme, a Forest Service spokesman, said the agency has been asking the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise for help, but there are too many fires burning in the West to bring additional resources to the Bear Fire.

“We’ve had our orders in … and not been able to get them filled,” Prud’homme said. “Everybody’s committed.”

A total of 1,352 firefighters are working on the Bear Fire and another blaze in the area.

“We’re still in a critically short supply (of manpower),” he said. “That is nationwide.”

Winds push Bear Fire on ‘a big run’

Any progress the Forest Service had made on the Bear Fire was overtaken by 45 mile per hour winds that made the fire jump the Middle Fork of the Feather River.

An update released by the Forest Service on Tuesday said air personnel discovered a spot fire south of the river at 10 a.m. Within an hour, that blaze had consumed 1,000 acres. By 3 p.m., it had grown to 20,000 acres and “moved fifteen miles to the southwest,” toward Berry Creek and its 1,200 residents.

“The winds came from the northeast and hit the side of the fire that we were not able to do much work on,” Prud’homme said. After jumping the Feather River, the fire “made a big run,” he said.

Steve Kaufmann, a Cal Fire spokesman, said the fire consumed 97,000 acres within a 24-hour period after the winds materialized.

Prud’homme said the Bear Fire was one of three in the region, along with the Sheep Fire near Susanville and the Claremont Fire near Quincy, that began with lightning strikes Aug. 17 in the Plumas National Forest. The Sheep Fire has been 100% contained.

“Yes, we worked the fire for several weeks. We were making progress on containment,” he said. “We were making very good headway.” He didn’t have containment figures on the Bear Fire. It was part of the larger complex of fires called the North Complex, which as of Wednesday morning was 254,000 acres and 38% contained.

Jake Cagle, operations section chief with the California Interagency Incident Management Team, agreed that it appeared until Tuesday’s wind storm that conditions were under control.

“We were getting a toehold around most of it, with 52% containment,” he said, referring to the overall North Complex incident. After the wind kicked up, “within 30 minutes we had 1,000 acres” of new destruction.

Prud’homme said the federal government has been shifting resources as circumstances require.

“Where the fire has the greatest threat is where we put the greatest effort,” he said.

The Forest Service has made an effort over the past few years to encourage fires not threatening communities to burn for longer, to bring fire back to the landscape that evolved to burn after a century of aggressive fire suppression.

But earlier this year federal officials announced that because of the risk of COVID-19 to firefighting crews, the Forest Service would revert back to fighting every fire that ignited to try to keep them small, said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former wildland firefighter who’s the executive director of Firefighters United for Safety Ethics and Ecology.

He said it didn’t matter. This year’s wildfire season left the Forest Service’s firefighting resources stretched so thin that they are having to “triage fires.”

“There’s so much wildfire activity across the whole West Coast,” he said.

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©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

JOSH EDELSON/Getty Images North America/TNS