Teamwork vanquishes Grand fire

  • An inferno engulfs a pine tree. [Jeff Zimmerman photo]

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    An inferno engulfs a pine tree. [Jeff Zimmerman photo]

  • The Grand fire rages across the hillsides behind the Flying J truck stop. [Jeff Zimmerman photo]

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    The Grand fire rages across the hillsides behind the Flying J truck stop. [Jeff Zimmerman photo]

  • The Grand fire shown wrapping around the north, east and south sides of Frazier Mountain.

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    The Grand fire shown wrapping around the north, east and south sides of Frazier Mountain.

  • Lance Borgstrom’s photos show power lines being threatened and chaparral exploding into flames.

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    Lance Borgstrom’s photos show power lines being threatened and chaparral exploding into flames.

  • [Lance Borgstrom photo]

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    [Lance Borgstrom photo]

By Patric Hedlund
It was a bad one. On Wednesday, May 15 at about 12:45 p.m. gusting winds drove a grass fire on Frazier Mountain Park Road up the hillside between Lebec and Frazier Park. Flames accelerated, tearing toward Frazier Mountain High School, then veered toward Hungry Valley State OHV Park in Gorman. FMHS students and the state park were evacuated.

Teamwork kicked in instantly. Firefighters from Los Angeles, Ventura and Kern Counties responded. Air tankers and helicopters were assigned immediately. The U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Cal Fire and California State Parks provided support. The Kern, Ventura and Los Angeles County Sheriffs’ Offices jumped in to help, as did Caltrans.

The Grand fire burned 4,346 acres, but by Tuesday, May 22 it was declared fully contained. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Because it began near Frazier Mountain Park Road, residents speculate that sparks from a vehicle or from a carelessly thrown cigarette are likely suspects. Sparking power lines are also being considered.

Massive resources were called in by the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire shared Incident Command team.

By May 16 there were six air tankers dropping fire retardant and water on the fire, along with five to six helicopters. Bulldozers and hand crews worked on steep terrain to get the fire contained.

Within the perimeter that has been established, “hot spots” are still being cleaned.

Low-risk California State Corrections prisoners trained as firefighters camped in Frazier Mountain Park in large tents during the most active part of the battle. Smaller “igloo” tents were used by young California Conservation Corps (CCC) members who were charged with keeping the grounds of Frazier Mountain Park spotless, according to Gunnar Kuepper of Frazier Park who said he spoke with several young men and women who had been born in Iraq and were there working with the CCC.

Briefings included education for all firefighters and support staff about the need to not allow litter to remain on the ground because it can be a hazard to the endangered California condor that forage in these areas. Condors mistake paper, metal and plastic debris for bits of bone. They feed it to their young, causing the death of condor chicks.

The grounds of the former Tait Ranch were equipped with sleeping trailers for firefighters. On Tuesday, May 21 camps were being packed up and final debriefings completed.

It is estimated that fighting the Grand fire and getting it contained cost over $8,170,000 by Wednesday, May 22, according to Matthew Traynham, who is serving as information officer for Mt. Pinos District during the Grand fire.

By late afternoon Tuesday, caravans of trucks from the associated agencies began pulling out onto the highways, heading for home.
Here in the Mountain Communities, residents were deeply grateful for the quick professionalism of the incident command and the firefighters. Mountain Communities Chamber of Commerce President Rachel Unell toured the facilities early in the week to convey appreciation.

Two days after Frazier Mountain High School was evacuated as the fire bore down on its buildings, the champion baseball team was back on their playing field, continuing their winning streak in a play-off game surrounded by charred hillsides blackened by this wildland firestorm.

The Grand fire brings home the message that fire season has started early, with a savage vengeance. It has transformed the warnings to clear personal property of fire hazards by June 15 in Kern and Ventura Counties from a nagging detail to an important priority.

This year’s drought has left fuels in the forest around us dangerously dry. Clearing personal property will help firefighters protect your home safely. We are all more vigilant. Hopefully we will also all be more careful.

Linda Mae Gregory of Lebec was incensed when she saw the driver of a Toyota at the base of the Grapevine “toss a lit cigarette out [their] window and hot sparks of fire hit the pavement.”

For hikers and off-road enthusiasts, many trails will remain closed this week, including Tejon, East Frazier, Gold Hill, Whata, Long Dave and Arrastra. The road up Frazier Mountain behind Chuchupate Ranger Station will also be closed this week.

A full 20 photographers helped document events of the past week, sending The Mountain Enterprise images from every angle of the blaze.  Many of those photos were displayed in our breaking news coverage of the Grand fire at (See photos here and more photos here), and more will be used in The New Mountain Pioneer for June. These community reporters helped keep their neighbors informed and safe. In alphabetical order, we wish to thank Lance Borgstrom, Cliff Coleman, John and Linda Curtis, A.J. and Frances Durocher, Joe Francis, Tommy Hastings, Kerry Keiser, Judy Kolbeins, Gunnar Kuepper, Kevin McDonnell, Chuck Noble, Douglas Page, Scott Parsons, Scott Robinson, Maryann Ryan, Raquel Sarabia, Dale Sheldon, Paul Walter, Sara Woerter and Jeff Zimmerman.

This is part of the May 24, 2013 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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