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Scorched Earth, Part 1: Prevent Another Fountain Fire; Reject Fountain Wind Project

One of the many family gatherings, approximately 1935

Aug. 19, 1992

My family and I left my grandpa’s house in Round Mountain, California, after our annual visit. I was 11. Since the 1930s, my family has either lived on the 160 Shasta County acres or gathered there each summer. Each visit, the second we opened the car door we took in the scent of pines. Wild turkey and deer are part of the surroundings here. We would journey with our grandfather to the gravity-fed springs, and he’d have me slide down the steep slopes it took to get water to his house.

“Watch out for the poison oak,” and “Step back, that’s a rattlesnake,” were not uncommon warnings from the adults. My brothers and I enjoyed how close one doe was willing to get to us as she nibbled on the apple trees during that 1992 visit. We named her Scar for the large scar that took up the length of almost her entire belly. Before leaving, my brothers — older and taller than I — were asked to prune some of the trees around the property. The timing could not have been better.

Aug. 20, 1992

The residents in the small communities of Round Mountain, Oak Run and Montgomery Creek woke up as if it were any other day, never suspecting that they’d soon face a fire with the force of a Category 5 hurricane. They had no idea that in just a few hours, they would be sheltering-in-place, desperately trying to escape and survive what was then regarded as one of the worst fires in California history. It appeared as a foreshock to a larger earthquake, or rather, larger, more destructive mega-fires that would destroy thousands of homes and take countless lives.

Overnight, the names of small towns few people recognized would be on the front page of newspapers across the nation, and lead stories in national television news reports.

The Fountain Fire was “no normal fire,” as one reporter said. The acres burned and structures destroyed pale in comparison to today’s fires. There was no sense of urgency to learn the lessons, perhaps because it was in a rural area. There were more pressing concerns for the policymakers. There always are.

Quotes and screenshots of those who fought the Fountain Fire

Aug. 21, 1992

Two days after we’d left my grandfather’s ranch to return to our Los Angeles home, I stared in shock at the television news that showed aerial footage of Round Mountain. The news anchors spoke reverently, and seemed awestruck as they explained that the small village of Round Mountain was gone – consumed by fire – in one hour. The reporters compared it to the 1988 Yellowstone Fire, only smaller in scope.

The highest-ranking firefighters at the time from then-California Department of Forestry (now CAL FIRE) said they’d never seen anything like it. For my family, the news was like a blow to the stomach. My mom, who’d spent much of her childhood summers at the Round Mountain family property, stood silently aghast as she took in the details of what she was hearing. She knew what I didn’t; that the densely forested area she knew and loved was gone, and that it would never look the same in her lifetime, or mine. I wondered if the doe had survived, but more importantly, we still didn’t know yet if my grandpa had made it out safely or not. Our horror and pain were minor compared to what was happening, and had already occurred for those living where the fire had burned. The story of the Fountain Fire is harrowing, miraculous, and a lesson on a perpetual cycle in the West. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that never seems truly learned.

The Fountain Fire eventually led me to seek my Master’s Degree in Disaster and Emergency Management, and write my thesis on the Fountain Fire.

An Imperfect Place for Wind Turbines

For a few years now, a company called Connectgen that was established in 2018 has proposed a massive wind turbine project in the area that burned in the Fountain Fire; the same project a different applicant dropped out of.

The height of the proposed turbines is 691 feet; 90 feet taller than the 601-foot-tall Shasta Dam, and more than twice the size of the 305-foot Statue of Liberty. These would be the largest turbines ever built in the United States.

My degree taught me about risk analysis, mitigation and land-use policy. The name of the project – “Fountain Wind” – is an especially cruel name for those who lived through the Fountain Fire and lost almost everything but their lives. The Fountain Fire taught me that fires will be repeated; they’re a natural part of the ecosystem.

Early Inhabitants

The communities around the Fountain Wind Project Site are eclectic. They include Native Americans  and the migrants who eventually forged their way into the Western frontier, hoping to sculpt their future with the promises of gold and the bounty of timber that awaited them. Railroads needed the timber to be constructed, and the West needed the railroads to connect it to supply lines and bring others to the great frontier. It’s hard to believe, looking at it now, that it was once a booming area, or that it was once inhabited by thousands of residents and was an important stop for those traveling further north to Oregon.

Both the early Native Americans and those who came West have been defined by nature itself. The native tribes understood the importance of fire, and used it, rising from the ashes, to create harmony within the environment for thousands of years. On the other hand, the settlers rose from the sawdust that came from the timber mills first constructed to build the railways, the houses for all the new inhabitants, and to help reconstruct San Francisco after the great 1906 earthquake and fire.

The settlers also rose from the grit, grime and dirt of the mines and streams they mined for gold, silver and other precious metals. In the 1870s, Terry Mill became an important logging camp for the county, obtaining water rights to send their logs down flumes. Eventually what remained of Terry Mill would succumb to the Fountain Fire. Travelers on 299 East can still see some of the skeletons of mines near Ingot. Unfortunately, the new settlers treated the land as they had elsewhere, believing fires would act the same as they had in Europe, the Midwest, or the East Coast. They exploited the land and resources for their immediate needs with no thought for the future. They would learn the hard way what the Native Americans already knew.

My grandpa, possibly in front of Terry Mill, approximately 1931

After the Fountain Fire, the descendants of both the miners, loggers and Native Americans would rise together, bruised and battered from the ashes of what remained of their homes (if they were lucky) and lives after the Fountain Fire. The smoke and the ground smoldered until November, nearly three months after the fire.

Extreme Survival

The Fountain Fire meadow survivors sheltered in place.  Ruins of what burned remain. The ridge in this photo would contain the turbines. Photo taken by author, May 2021.

Meadows provided a haven for some during the Fountain Fire. A group of 14 residents stood in one meadow while they watched 17 out of 18 buildings destroyed by fire as propane tanks exploded around them. One person ran and jumped into a pond. On one home that survived, the paneling melted off; displaying through the remaining framework furniture sitting as if nothing had happened. Merely four hours after the Fountain Fire began, these people had no option but to sit in a meadow; cut off from their only evacuation route, in 2,000+-degree heat, with fire tornadoes, and 300-foot high flames sounding like a freight train headed straight toward them. The air was thick with smoke, making it almost impossible to breathe, requiring some people to put wet cloths over their faces in an attempt to filter out the smoke.

One homeowner attempted to make a fire break using his tractor when, at one point, surrounded by the wall of flames, he had to jump out of the moving machinery as it continued its descent down a ravine. He hopped back on it and continued his work as soon as the flames did their damage. It would be five hours before firefighters could reach the people in the meadow. This story was just one of many as the fire destroyed anything and everything in its path, turning trees into torches.

While many residents sought shelter in meadows and ponds, for others the only way out was via old logging roads. Without the help of an old-timer like my grandpa to lead the way, many people would have become lost in the maze of these narrow, dusty, winding roads that eventually lead to Burney. When it was time for my grandfather to leave by way of the old logging roads, he left with a caravan of his fellow friends and neighbors following behind. They trusted he knew his way through the thick smoke to safety. Their lives depended on it. Others, too, used other logging roads. These life-saving roads will now be surrounded by the proposed turbines, leaving no safe route to travel in the event of a fire.

My grandfather’s home was one of the few to survive. Some firefighters were trapped at the end of the road; their trucks would travel too slowly up the logging road the caravan used, so they saved their lives by protecting my grandpa and his neighbor’s homes.

By the nightfall of the second day of the Fountain Fire — approximately 36 hours later — the fire had devoured 20 miles, moving straight to the outskirts of Burney. The evacuees included all Burney residents. Had the winds been blowing the other direction, it would have carried the firestorm as far as the outskirts of eastern Redding.

Fountain Fire, Meet Fountain Wind Project

The people around the proposed project site intimately know the location, and they intimately know that the risk of fire is always looming. Those living in the area don’t need statistics on wildfire risk, climatic conditions, or fuel load. They know everything there is to know because they once stared down the eye of a firestorm and survived it.

Every whiff or view of smoke instantly takes those who live here, even newcomers, back to the anxiety and fear of that fire. The question is always there:

Is this the next Fountain Fire?

The sign leading to the memorial and Vista Point to the Fountain Fire, now closed and desecrated. Taken by the Author, May 2021.

What’s in a Name?

The name of the Fountain Wind Project itself was ill-conceived, obscene, and unconscionable. Fountain Fire survivors will never hear the word “Fountain” without thinking of the fire. Even if the name is eventually changed, the damage has been done.  In the past, “fountain” and “fire” were synonymous to those who lived it; now, the association has changed elements. The word “wind” has replaced “fire”, and the word “turbines” will replace the roadside fountain that once aided horses, and later car radiators up to steep slopes of 299 East, the fire’s namesake.

There’s no ignoring the irony: Wind shaped the Fountain Fire into an uncontrollable monster with a life of its own. Wind propelled the fire up hills and canyons at phenomenal speeds. Wind helped create weather systems. Hurricane-force winds spawned fire tornadoes between 100 and 1,000 feet wide. Wind blew the smoke sideways, hampering firefighting efforts, both in the air and on the ground. Wind seared the eyes and suffocated those fighting the fire as well as those trying to survive it. Wind made the blaze impossible to fight and added to the complexity, causing winds to shift 90 degrees every 10-15 minutes. Wind will eventually aid the next fire here. Wind, the current resource being mined with turbines, will add more wind and fuel to the next fire.

This fountain, was the Fountain Fire’s namesake. It is now relocated at a rest stop, about 12 miles from where it was once located. The road has to be rebuilt.

No one would be OK with this being named the Carr Wind Project or Camp Wind Project. So why is it OK to name it the Fountain Wind Project? Perhaps it’s because Fountain Wind Project could possibly be the site of another Fountain Fire.

Photo was taken by Jeff Webster August 21, 1992, the morning after the fire started. The aerial pilots had never seen anything like this and were shocked Montgomery Creek, and Round Mountain were gone.

The Fountain Fire; A Fire Waiting to Happen

Considering the drought, political policies, budgetary problems, and the myopic vision that led to cutting the firefighting budget when the forests were itching to cleanse themselves of the dead and decaying trees within them, the Fountain Fire should have surprised no one. As Stephen Pyne, considered the foremost expert in wildfire history in the U.S  has said, “Northern California fires come like a flash flood or a sudden, crippling blizzard. They appear like a cloud of lightning-buzzing locusts, swarming over land and defying control by their overwhelming numbers … The real surprise is that anyone should continue to be surprised … this is how fire behaves, a chronic backdrop of tremors and storms, punctuated every decade or so by shattering eruptions … Fire protection means managing for the Big One, even if the Big One comes in a baker’s dozen.”

At the time of the Fountain Fire, it instantly rose to the top six most destructive fires (in terms of structures) burned in California history, destroying more than 600 homes and other structures; two-thirds of them in just the first day. By the time I wrote my thesis about the Fountain Fire in 2016, it was No. 11, and would remain on the top-20 fires list until the end of 2020.

The Fountain Fire behaved erratically, franticly and unpredictably. It left firefighters on the defense with little opportunity to gain ground. Conditions continued like this for four days. The budget cuts, limited resources, steep slopes, remote terrain, low humidity, six years of drought, and other fires throughout the state didn’t help, as many of the county’s firefighters were already dispatched to other infernos.

By Day 3, there was still only 10 percent of the necessary firefighting resources and personnel available to combat the Fountain Fire. A scarcity of firefighters is always a problem in the middle of fire season, and the Fountain Fire was no different. By the time firefighting reinforcements arrived, it was too late. In just 33 hours, the fire burned 91 square miles. For perspective, consider that Redding’s area is 61 square miles. In total, 63,000 of the 64,000 acres would burn in total, and with it, most of the structures were destroyed. In 33 hours, Round Mountain, Montgomery Creek, Hillcrest and Moose Camp were effectively obliterated.

An Associated Press photo screen captured.

Though aerial attack was swift, the fire was quicker. It made many impressive runs, at times burning 80 acres a minute, or 105 football fields a minute. It traveled 12 miles in three hours and burned between 40,000 to 45,000 acres in just 8 ½ hours. Its speed peaked between 6 mph and at one point 9 mph. As three fire heads approached Moose Camp 24 hours after the Fountain Fire began, it moved at 9 mph with sustained wind gusts around 70 mph; close to the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane. Flames reached more than 300 feet high. The Fountain Fire created its own weather, and a cloud more than 25,000 feet tall was noted in Medford, Ore., forming an ice cap and spawning lightning and fire tornadoes. the Fountain Fire blew metal roofs uphill and snapped 36-inch-diameter trees in half. Winds were dynamic, shifting direction by 90 degrees every 10 to 15 minutes. The fire was spotting nearly 2 miles in front of the front fire edge. The resulting scene was apocalyptic to those fighting it, and everything and everyone in its path.

A still of television footage showing a plane dropping retardant on the fire.

Conditions were so erratic and unpredictable that even some seasoned firefighters dropped their hoses and ran, even when they attempted to save their own homes. Many of the local volunteer firefighters did lose their homes. Mendocino Hot Shots working on Hatchet Ridge were surrounded by flames and took the only way out; they slid down the nearly vertical slope of Hatchet Mountain; now home to Hatchet Ridge Wind.

People Hearing Without Listening

In emergency management, the human side of disaster is just as important as the cycle, plans or disaster. Approving the permit to construct the turbines will forever impact these communities and change their destiny. It will change it just as much as the loggers changed the Native Americans’ way of life, as much as logging altered the habitat, as much as the spotted owl changed logging, and as much as fire suppression harmed the forests.

The Fountain Fire scorched the land. It’s essential that the Shasta County’s Planning Commission not approve the use permit for the Fountain Wind Project. The voices of those who live in the project area are more important than anyone else’s, because they will live with the negative consequences of these turbines with no benefit.

It appears these horrific risks are rationalized by what is good for the county, California, or even the world. It is acceptable that one group of citizens can be re-traumatized as long as the rest of society benefits?

About those promised benefits, consider that the Carr Fire cost approximately $1.65 billion. Therefore, a single fire will end up costing far more than the county might ever gain from wind turbines.

As for my grandpa’s story and others, those voices are not forgotten. Emergency management acknowledges that although we cannot stop all fires from starting, we can prevent Fountain Fire II by not building industrial utility projects in high-risk places.

There will be another fire. There will be no way out. The meadows in which survivors sought shelter during the Fountain Fire will no longer be safe places of refuge. There will be a fire, and people will die because of the turbines.

Why Reject the Fountain Wind Project?

• Connectgen claims it can maintain current service ratios in response time; current response time is never addressed
• Scant risk analysis
• Baseline conditions include climate change. Doing so is hard to predict and California predicts that fires along the infrastructure they are going to add will increase risk between 45-75% more fires within a quarter mile of these lines in the area. The study concluded it would be better to bury lines than build in these areas at high risk
Connectgen suggests because we can’t evacuate already, the turbines will not increase any problems to evacuation routes. It ignores the informal evacuation routes and the risk that sheltering-in-place may cause deaths.
• Fire experts like Stephen Pyne believe 1.5 miles of fuel break would be necessary for housing developments near the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), and for an industrial-size project, between 2.5 to 3 miles are recommended around the project site
Connectgen quotes CAL FIRE as saying fires in the area will be more damaging than any other in the area; yet it downplays the Fountain Fire, merely stating how many structures burned, and how many acres.
• Turbines create their own lightning
• Fires on turbines are proprietary information, and unavailable to the public unless it becomes a news story
• No mention of how electrical infrastructure creates fires, and turbines can create fires
• Reliance upon Wildfire Mitigation Plan and Vegetation Management Plans from PG&E to take care of the new electrical lines and infrastructure for safety; recently ruled in courts as insufficient
• It’s unlikely that fire incident commanders will venture near the turbines; with means a lack of ground firefighting for homes closest to the fire
Connectgen lacks sufficient performance standards for evacuation or firefighting; there’s no mention of how long it would take to evacuate, or how long it would take for fire trucks to respond
• Adding new roads does not help; in fact, they lead to more fires. Fires tend to mimic roads.
• Aerial firefighters will not be able to defend three communities; it will be too unsafe due to turbulence. Air attack also protects those on the ground.
• CAL FIRE will defer to Sacramento. and will not go against state goals
• Geostudies are deferred until after approval if landslides are found. It’s suspected that Connectgen was aware of but omitted reference to a landslide location directly beneath one of the turbines, however, it cannot be found in their report; only scoping. The landslide was originally named “I-5” and was first visible in 1993, likely a result of the Fountain Fire. It’s suspected that that landslide is now known as E04.
• Failure to consider other ways turbines can catch fire: ignoring lighting misses, blasting,
• The Fountain Wind Project is inconsistent with Shasta General Plan FS-1: FS -1 Shasta County goal Protect development from wildland and non-wildland fires by requiring new development projects to incorporate effective site and building design measures commensurate with level of potential risk presented by such a hazard and by discouraging and/or preventing development from locating in high risk fire hazard areas. California only allows the Board of Supervisors to determine consistency, it cannot be delegated
• Does not acknowledge a report that shows Hatchet Ridge had significant failures in the first two-and-half years of operation; including 12 unanticipated problems, which are not usual for these types of projects, including collapse of transmission lines, sensor issue, a main bearing problem, electrical failure of generator, oil leakage from the turbines, seven gearboxes had to replaced, and potential durability to ground base.
• Failure to post-slope stability after a fire, because no fire can happen because of a fire plan that does not yet exist.
• Deferred plans can only be adopted if it’s possible to make good on assurances
• Most accidents happen overwhelming in complex terrains in mountains due to wind shear
• Connectgen relies upon PG&E’s mitigation plans.

Shasta County Planning Commission Public Hearing to Decide Use Permit

The following information is from the Shasta County Planning Commission website:

“The public hearing to consider whether to approve, conditionally approve, or deny the use permit for the project and whether to certify the Final Environmental Impact Report will be held on Tues., June 22, 2021. The session will begin at 1 p.m., or as soon thereafter as the business of the Commission will allow. The hearing will be held at the Shasta College Theater, located on the Shasta College campus at 11555 Old Oregon Trail, Redding Calif.

All interested parties are, consistent with restrictions related to the current COVID-19 pandemic, encouraged and
invited to submit written comments regarding the proposed actions or participate in the public hearing to be heard regarding
the actions to be considered including, but not limited to, consideration of a use permit for the proposed project and the
proposed certification of the Final Environmental Impact Report for the proposed project. The Shasta County link can be found here. 

Related story: Click here to read the Shasta Environmental Alliance position on the Fountain Wind Project.

References

My references come from many 1992 newspaper articles. The timber and mining references can be found in many newspaper articles dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. They are referenced in my thesis.

Stephen Pyne’s quotes come from his book “Tending fire: Coping with America’s wildland fires”. Washington, D.C.: Shearwater, 2004

Kelly Willett Tanner grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. She spent many weeks in Eastern Shasta County as a child, and returned to live on the family “ranch”  five years ago. She has a M.A. in Disaster and Emergency Management and wrote her thesis on the Fountain Fire. She moved to the North State as soon as she finished her education, and started working on fire clearance around the property. She is presently a stay-at-home mom. She volunteers teaching groups around Shasta County how to be more prepared for wildfires. Kelly can be reached at kwillett2@hotmail.com

 

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