Frightened community weathers
3,111-acre Mt. Diablo inferno

By Peggy Spear and Tamara Steiner on September 23, 2013

Lead_Thank u_TLS_WebsiteWhen disaster strikes, it’s easy to find villains and heroes. While a target shooter using ammunition inappropriately may face charges for starting the Sept. 8 Morgan Fire in the dry brush land of Mt. Diablo, the many heroes of the saga – firefighters, community residents and even Mother Nature itself – are being credited with helping curb the inferno, which scorched 3,111 acres, saw 100 homes evacuated and ultimately caused $5.3 million in damage.

Hot September day

Temperatures were rising to “seasonable” – at least for the East Bay – highs of more than 90 degrees early that Sunday afternoon. Most local residents were already finishing their morning activities in time, maybe to catch the 49ers season opener against Green Bay on TV that afternoon.

Up on Mt. Diablo, the dry winter and harsh summer heat had the land primed for disaster, as the scrub brush that laces throughout the steep hills and canyon is as flammable as gasoline this time of year.

It was just after 1 p.m. when Jack Wessman called 911 to report a fire on his property at the abandoned mercury mines at Morgan Territory and Marsh Creek Roads. A relative had been target shooting, and sparked a brushfire.

Knowing the threat, the California Department of Forestry – Cal Fire – responded quickly, with six engines, two that arrived within minutes, dispatched from the nearby Sunshine Station.

The half-acre fire was extinguished quickly, and by 1:30 p.m., Cal Fire officials were ready to send their incoming engines back to the stations they came from – including two from Contra Costa Fire Stations 8 and 22 in Concord.

That’s when Mother Nature got wily.

A burned pine tree “exploded like a Roman Candle” said witnesses, spraying its pinecones and embers up to about 800 feet away. Unfortunately, one of those embers sparked a spot fire, and suddenly, the small grass fire took on new life, racing off down the canyon and up the mountain in multiple directions.

It was a firefighter’s nightmare.

Smoke billows

Across the bay, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike Marcucci was enjoying a rare weekend off, taking in the America’s Cup races in San Francisco, when he got the call. He had taken the ferry over from Larkspur. Since his truck was back in Marin, he was forced to take a bus back across the Golden Gate Bridge – with a superb view of the smoke that was suddenly billowing from Mt. Diablo.

“I knew then it wasn’t going to be good,” said the third-generation fireman.

Indeed, once the smoke became visible, residents on and around Mt. Diablo began calling 911, and actively seeking out information about friends and neighbors.

In the first hour of the fire, evacuation orders for Curry Creek and Oak Hill Lane were issued. As the fire raced northwards up North Peak, more evacuations began– for those who would go. Residents of Russelman Park Road, Trail Ride Road, East Trail Road, Upper Trail Road and Lower Trail Road were also asked to evacuate – or be ready to.

But many folks who live on the mountain don’t want to be separated from their land, and as the fire raged, Marcucci said about 100 percent of the residents in some areas evacuated, while in other areas, only about 40 percent did.

Meanwhile, Cal Fire was asking for help, ordering more engines, bulldozers, air tankers and helicopters. In all, there were 30 hand crews, 11 dozers, 85 engines, three helicopters and two large air tankers, flown in from the central valley.

“We were really lucky they were there,” Marcucci says.

As the quick-moving fire raced up the mountain, local civic leaders and the Red Cross set up an evacuation center at the Clayton Community Library, and a command post for the fire was set up at Station 11.

The Morgan Fire – named by Cal Fire for Morgan Territory road near where the fire was located – was taking off.

Fickle winds

As the fire raged, it was fueled by the ubiquitous scrub brush and dried vegetation, curving into canyons and dried gullies, and creating a near-impossible situation for the hand crews battling on foot. On Sunday, more than 700 firefighters and inmates tried to protect the homes and other structures in the fire’s path. But fickle winds made it almost impossible to track the route.

“Because Mt. Diablo is round, it throws off any wind projections,” Marcucci says. “It can change in an hour, whether it is an on-shore breeze or coming from the east, it swirls around and makes it hard to track.”

Further away, the eerie sight of flames licking over the top of the mountain stunned residents throughout the East Bay.

By Monday morning, 2,540 acres had burned, and it was only 10 percent contained. Luckily, the light of day brought out the helicopters and air tankers again, and firefighters worked tirelessly throughout the day to save PG&E transmission lines, communication towers and the historical buildings located at the summit. About 100 homes in the area were also threatened.

Roads closures were in effect: Marsh Creek Road from Camino Diablo to Regency Road in Clayton, and Morgan Territory Road from Marsh Creek Road to Highland Road in Alameda County. In East County, Deer Valley Road was closed at Balfour Road, and evacuation orders were still in effect.

Firefighters were aided, however, by two DC-10s who dropped 24,000 gallons of retardant on the mountain before being called to a bigger fire burning near Shasta. Thinking they were about to get the upper hand in the fire, Cal Fire decided to move the command station from Clayton to Camp Parks in Dublin because it needed a larger space, and began the logistical headache of preparing to feed and lodge hundreds of tired and hungry firefighters and prison inmates dispatched to help on the fire lines.

Monday night surprise

Unfortunately, that evening found Mother Nature once again uncooperative, and during this evening transition the the fire once again switched directions and moved toward the more heavily populated Morgan Territory.

“I’ll be honest, it surprised us,” Marcucci said. “It turned and freight-trained down the mountain.”

Because of the change in command posts, there was a dearth of information from firefighters. The CalFire Incident Site had not been updated all day, and local residents were unsure of whether their homes were going to be safe or not.

With the lack of information came confusion and fear. People were left to rely on local blogs and social media for critical information – not always accurate. Reports that the fire had jumped Morgan Territory Road and was heading towards the horse ranches on the East side, sent fearful horse owners scrambling to evacuate their livestock. Some anxious residents left their cars at the barricade on Marsh Creek and headed into the fire zone on foot. Others on ATVs were crossing over private property in an attempt to get to the other side of the flames.

“It was chaotic,” Marcucci said.

Flames were shooting more than 150 feet in the air and red embers were blowing across the road like dust. It was an inferno.

At one point, resident Don Van Laeken handed a hose to KCRA news reporter Richard Sharp, who was doing live coverage, and asked him to help water down his property. Even Marcucci wasn’t immune to the effects, as he had his hair singed by the violent flames.

As the blaze jumped in size Monday night, it was clear that this was a catastrophic fire, and one that would take days to contain. It was estimated at more than 4,000 acres.

By Tuesday, Cal Fire had amassed an army of 100 engines, 38 fire crews, four air tankers, 11 helicopters, six water tenders and 25 bulldozers. The tide was turning.

The Morgan Territory flare-up had been aggressively fought by crews who literally shielded the flames from more devastating damage. Evacuation orders continued in effect. In even better news, improved aerial mapping by Cal Fire helicopters estimated the blaze at just over 3,100 acres, and not 4,000.

By Tuesday night at 8 p.m. more than 1,400 firefighters were on the scene, and the fire was 60 percent contained. All evacuation orders were finally lifted by 6 p.m.

Throughout the rest of the week, firefighters continued to get an upper-hand on the blaze, and started the business of “mopping up” – clearing the damage as well as possible.

“In a way, we were lucky, as the fire was on this side of the mountain,” Marcucci says. “If it had been near the south gate – by Alamo, Danville, Walnut Creek and San Ramon – it is much more densely populated. I’m sure we would have lost more structures.”

In fact, he says it is a “miracle” there was no loss of life or major structures.

“It could have been a lot more windy,” he says.

All in all, however, there were only three firefighter injuries-two twisted ankles and one firefighter brought down for heat exhaustion. “A remarkable feat,” says Marcucci

Enough firepower for the firefighters?

Still, the fire demonstrates how fast such wildfires can get out of control, and leads to some inevitable questions. Had Fire Station 11 in Clayton been staffed that early afternoon, would it have made a difference?

“None at all,” Marcucci said. “Cal Fire engines were at the first fire within minutes, followed closely by engines from Stations 22 and 8 from ConFire (Contra Costa County Fire District). Station 11’s closing had no impact.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, who fought tirelessly for Measure Q, the fire parcel tax, last fall. When it failed, the county was forced to shutter seven fire stations, including Clayton’s only station.

“We had all the resources at our disposal being deployed anyway, so it’s not an issue,” she says. “We were very fortunate that there were no other fires that day, and that the winds didn’t pick up too much. It was a bad fire, but it could have been so much worse.”

However, she is quick to point out that it was “strong mutual aid” between Cal Fire, ConFire, the East Contra Costa Fire District, San Ramon Fire District, Mt. Diablo State Park, local law enforcement and other local agencies that worked together that helped keep the fire from being even more damaging.

Marcucci agrees that good communication between agencies is essential in this type of situation. “There were a lot of jurisdictions, and we all had a common goal.”

The fire was fully contained on Sept. 14, almost a full week after it started.

Previous post:

Next post: