“You people right here, you are more people than what we have for fighting this fire,” Lee Rickard, incident commander for the 12,000-acre Donnell Fire, told an estimated 500 people who came to a meeting Monday evening at Pinecrest Amphitheater to hear about the destructive blaze.
Rickard said he had about 400 firefighters and support staff assigned to the Donnell Fire on Monday.
“A fire this size we might normally see a thousand firefighters,” another member of command staff told the audience.
Officials said they are in competition for personnel and equipment with 60 large fires nationwide, including the deadly Ferguson Fire now burning in Yosemite National Park and the Carr and Mendocino Complex fires burning in Northern California.
Rickard faced tough questions from some members of the audience, and he eventually ended a question-and-answer session when one woman asked repeatedly, “Where was the air support?”
Some people came to the meeting to listen and applaud command staff at times, and others came to get answers. Monday was day six of the blaze, which started last Wednesday near the east end of Donnell Reservoir.
Manny Madrigal, a public information officer with the Donnell Fire, said Monday evening there was still no count or estimate of the number of structures destroyed by the Donnell Fire when it blew up Sunday afternoon.
Public information officers referred questions to Inciweb, which by late Monday evening still listed information from Sunday night and Monday morning.
An operations chief with command staff for the Donnell Fire said, “We attacked this fire right away and it spotted. Unfortunately yesterday it did jump Highway 108, and about 1500 hours, 3 p.m., we had 30 mile-per-hour winds and embers flying at Brightman Flat and we lost some structures.”
At least part of the Donnell Fire will follow the Middle Fork Stanislaus drainage uphill and east toward Kennedy Meadows, the operations chief said.
Sarah LaPlante, Summit District ranger with the Stanislaus National Forest, said she and others with the Forest Service understand many people in mountain communities along Highway 108 are upset the main building that anchored the historic Dardanelle Resort burned to the ground Sunday.
Tuolumne County Sheriff Bill Pooley spoke about how his deputies are trying to make sure everybody’s getting out of live fire areas safely. A mandatory evacuation remains in place along the Highway 108 corridor from Eagle Meadow Road to Kennedy Meadows.
Pooley said the eastbound closure on Highway 108 has been moved from Kennedy Meadows Road to over the top of Sonora Pass. The sheriff also said the Pacific Crest Trail has been closed from Highway 108 to Highway 4 as of Monday due to the proximity of the Donnell Fire.
“We’ve been here since day one,” Pooley said. “We’re going to stay with it. To my knowledge everyone’s safe and accounted for.”
The cause of the fire was listed Monday as “unknown and under investigation.”
Firefighters have faced changing conditions, command staff said. On Saturday advancing edges of the fire moved five miles and on Sunday the limited crews available faced firestorm conditions for a time at Brightman Flat and Dardanelle.
Weather that spawned unpredictable and dangerous fire behavior settled down Monday, when inversion capped the blaze, held smoke down, and kept conditions cooler at times. That cool cover helps firefighters on the ground but it also keeps pilots and aircraft away from the blaze.
An aviation supervisor told the audience Monday evening, “We were not able to fly today at all. Yesterday, Sunday, we were able to fly from noon to 8 p.m.”
Monday the inversion stayed in and there were no winds. A weather specialist said firefighters on the Donnell Fire can expect drier, hotter weather over the next three days, with more socked-in smoke cover that will limit aircraft retardant drops and water drops.
Big picture, the fire and weather variables point to the Donnell Fire continuing to move south and east. That means it could go toward Eagle Meadow or Kennedy Meadows, or both.
LaPlante with the Stanislaus National Forest emphasized the Donnell Fire was not a replay of the McCormick Fire, a managed fire a year ago in the same area.
“This has been a full suppression fire from the outset,” LaPlante said. “This is not a managed fire and it’s not for resource benefits.”
An operations supervisor said favorable weather conditions Monday allowed firefighters to fire out and clear fuels away from structures from Dardanelle east to Camp Jack Hazard.
A woman in the audience asked if the Forest Service will re-issue permits to rebuild cabins that have burned in the Donnell Fire. LaPlante and Scott Tangenberg, deputy forest supervisor, said they will look at the re-issue process. LaPlante said she had no reason to believe owners of permitted cabins would not be allowed to rebuild.
Someone else in the audience asked how likely it is that the Donnell Fire could loop around and decide to burn west again. Rickard said he believed it’s not likely due to typical prevailing weather patterns over the Middle Fork Stanislaus and the Central Sierra.
Another person asked what kind of structure protection measures were taken in the Brightman Flat area on Sunday.
“We try to remove all the fuel next to your house,” Rickard said. “To make it defensible before the fire comes.”
A man in the audience asked what agency is being assigned to protect structures on Eagle Meadow Road, also known as 5N01, Cal Fire or the Forest Service. Rickard said that is one reason the Donnell Fire is now under unified command, to clarify who will do structure protection where. It sounded like Rickard meant Cal Fire and the Forest Service will share responsibilities on Eagle Meadow Road.
More than one person asked about closing forest roads and outright closing the whole Stanislaus National Forest when fire dangers become so obvious.
“Why put our communities at risk by not closing the forest?” one woman asked. “If we have a fire at Beardsley Lake we do not have enough resources to put that out.”
Tangenberg responded that there’s no way to depopulate whole towns and communities, like Sonora and Santa Rosa, because fire is a heightened risk. He said he has no authority to close vast swathes of public land due to fire dangers.
As for the woman who asked “Where was the air support?” it was not clear if she stuck around to get her question answered. She indicated she was upset about cabins that were damaged or destroyed in the Donnell Fire.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy