The Fern Fire – September, 1990


I remember from my firefighting summers the second most psycho fire I ever was in with CalFire was a strike team fire. The holy grail of summertime firefighting in the CDF, now called CalFire, was going out on strike team. It was September 1990, and the Klammaths and the Siskiyous were on fire. From all the other Ranger Units of the state, “strike teams” are called up to big incidents. A strike team is five fire engines and their crews. They travel as a unit. The military equivalent would be an engineering platoon.

So we’re heading up freeway 99 as a convoy, on our way to the Klammath Mountains. Day turns to night, calm turns to windy. I was riding with my buddy – there’s two seats facing each other in the back of the fire engine. It’s the last few days of September 1990 and I was skipping school at Fresno State University to have a California firefighting adventure. We were still far short of the Klammath region, but suddenly the convoy took a turn east, leaving the main road. We were heading into the hilly, heavily forested area between Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen. Apparently a brand new fire had just broken out in the hills. In the dark of night in a howling wind in deep woodlands, two power lines being whipped into one another sent sparks.

By the time we arrived a small plume of fire you could observe from not too far away had turned into an F4 tornado like fire. The convoy drove right into it. It had just been there, right on the ground. Now the flaming monster was up in the trees. It was a “crownfire!” All the ground and the tree bark was still glowing brightly, embers that shimmered in purple, orange, bright white as smokey wind full of sparks screamed through the trees. You couldn’t tell at first because all the homes were dark – power was out. But we were in the midst of the rural town of Fern, a sizeable settlement.

Pure chaos all night. First we were putting out any flames near homes, only to see them march right back, hell bent on burning down the homes of Fern. Next came the broken legs and rescues of injured firefighters. You could just pause in the ambient glow of fire under wind and smoke and get mesmerized. That was the most crazy thing I’d ever seen!

The next day, death visited the incident in the strangest fashion. After all that chaos over night, the next morning was still and peaceful. The fire was contained, a fire line was getting built, and a lot of firev damaged trees needed to come down. Two chainswyers from the town came out there to saw down trees along the fire line, make some cash. They went out to the fireline wearing cutoff jeans, no shirts. I was there when that happened. A captain yelled at the two men to turn around and put on appropriate clothes. Later that day they were heading back in full fire safety gear. After the fire, we all heard they were killed. A telephone pole that was burned at the base, barely standing, gave out and fell right on top of them while they were working. The chainsaws would have made them unable to hear the telephone pole falling down.

Probably walked by the very pole that did it several times that morning. Every pole was burned at the base. We were all looking at each other – keep an eye on/ be real careful around – those telephone poles. After a fire passes, if it was intense, all the trees and poles will have that feature. Big tree or pole standing up (trees, very tall) but nothing but a tiny bit of wood still holding up the tree where fire ate away at the trunk. They are known as “widowmakers” in the fire biz. Other types of widowmakers are dangling live power lines, and in war, unexploded ordinance.

For days after an intense fire in the deep woods, “widowmakers” will be falling over on the slightest breeze. They will fall right next to where you’re standing. We all got very good at dodging widowmakers. As soon as one started falling, EVERYBODY turns their heads, assesses the probable landing spot, and steps aside.

The 3rd day on the Fern Fire, cold winds and clouds arrived from the north and as quickly as it had arrived there, the strike team headed home. Upon arrival in the home ranger unit, the five engines split up and head back to their home stations.

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