THURSDAY A.M. UPDATE: New overnight information from CalFire reports a dramatic increase in the number of homes lost in the Clover Fire; from Wednesday’s figure of 37 to the new count of 68 homes destroyed. About 128 outbuildings have been destroyed. The fire is 65 percent contained.
Some evacuated residents may be allowed back in phases, starting with a few regions along the Clear Creek/Cloverdale areas. And by later this afternoon some residents will be allowed to return to the lower Gas Point areas.
Wednesday was a day that began with the worst possible Clover Fire news, but ended with potential good news.
The bad news was the tragic report of the fire’s only confirmed death, Brian Stanley Henry, 56, of Coal Pit Road in Igo. His charred body was found on his burned property by sheriff officials during a welfare check requested by concerned loved ones.
The better news is that Clover Fire seems to be winding down, according to two conversations with CalFire information personnel, first in the afternoon, and later in the evening.
By the day’s end I was more enlightened about the seemingly inconsistent threatened-structure numbers, and I even learned about “fire clouds” formed by the Clover Fire itself.
First, I spoke with CalFire information officer Mike Witesman, who said the Clover Fire had burned 7,012 acres and was 40 percent contained. He said firefighters were pushing hard to snuff out the fire, and that the efforts were working because his office is hearing from many restless residents who see less smoke and assume that means less fire, which means they can return home.
Witesman, retired from a career of 33 fire seasons, and who’s worked as a fire information officer for many of his 13 years of retirement, can sympathize with homeowners.
“We understand residents’ frustrations,” he said. “They want to go home, and we want them to, too. But we want them to go home safely.”
He cited live power lines and reignited flames as examples of things that can go wrong if residents return home prematurely.
On another subject, Witesman was able to clear up some questions I had regarding why, on Tuesday, the number of structures threatened was reported in the 300 to 350 range, but by Wednesday the number had leapt to 500. This seemed perplexing, because firefighters were gaining control, the areas burned weren’t significantly higher, and the containment percentages were increasing. (By the way, as of this report the containment is listed as 50 percent.)
The explanation is found in understanding that one of the tools for determining the number of structures threatened comes from assessors records of properties within those active fire areas.
In the case of the Clover Fire, Witesman said assessors office staff met with CalFire people and realized that their existing-structure assessments were underestimated by a few hundred. This error was corrected by adjusting the threatened-structure count up to 500 on Tuesday.
Witesman explained that the actual threat wasn’t any greater, but the number of structures was greater.
Regarding the Clover Fire’s current location, Witesman said its farthest north boundary is Clear Creek Road, and it then runs south, and then west across Gas Point Road in Igo where it makes a turn at about Lower Gas Point Road, and from there it’s settled down in the northern Cow Creek vicinity.
He said that when considering fire perimeters, such as when the Clover Fire is shown on maps, it’s important to realize that the whole area inside the red lines may not be fully involved, but there may be sporadic spot fires throughout. That’s how it’s possible within the same active fire areas for one person’s home to burn to the ground while his neighbor’s home may survive unscathed.
With that cleared up, when I asked Witesman if the Clover Fire compares to any other north state fires in his firefighting career, he mentioned the Aug. 20, 1992 Fountain Fire, an eight-day inferno 40 miles east of Redding that was considered one of the worst wildfires in California history. It burned more than 64,000 acres and destroyed 300 homes.
He said in the early stages of both the Clover and Fountain fires, the fires spread rapidly. Both happened near summer’s end, during times of high temperatures and bone-dry underbrush.
On the other hand, Witesman said that there were some differences, too, such as each fire’s cause for their rapid spread. In the case of the Clover Fire, Witesman said it spread fast because of gusty winds that created its own velocity.
In the case of the Fountain Fire, the dry, steep terrain was one of the most dangerous factors.
But one thing they shared was something fairly distinct, said Witesman, a “pyrocumulus” formation above the fires. Pyrocumulus is not just smoke from the fire, but actual cloud formations created by the fire itself, a result of enough of a perfect storm of moisture and heat that it creates its own cloud column.
“It’s a pretty significant situation when that happens,” Witesman said. “It means a lot of serious stuff is going on on the ground.”
Finally, the day ended with some good news from Dave Ballard, a CalFire emergency worker who assists with the organization’s information line.
Ballard said that while the actual acreage burned had increased to 1,793 acres, the Clover Fire is considered 50 percent contained. The even better news is that if all goes well, CalFire hopes to have full containment by Sunday.
He said the number of threatened structures is down to 300. But the number of destroyed homes has climbed to 37, with 74 destroyed outbuildings and 13 damaged structures.
As firefighters gain the upper hand on the fire, resources are being reined in, with current resources including 159 engines, six dozers, 37 crews, four helicopters 23 water tenders and no air tankers.
Ballard reiterated Witesman’s sentiments regarding proceeding with caution when it comes to allowing evacuated residents to return home.
“It’s a real mess out there, and we need to be real careful about how we go about this,” Ballard said.
“People don’t like to be out of their homes, and we know that. But we’re very cautious about letting people return home too soon. We tell them to get out for a reason, and we’re not letting them back until it’s safe.”
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.