Woodward Fire boxed in and under control

David Briggs
Firefighters are performing backburns along Limantour Road to clean up the understory, so the fire won’t spread to the canopy of dry moss and branches above. Almost half of the Woodward Fire’s acreage is a result of these preventive ignitions.  
09/09/2020

Anxiety has turned to cautious optimism as containment approaches 100 percent on the Woodward Fire this week. Lower humidity and temperatures approaching triple digits over the holiday weekend tested the 4,900-acre blaze, which stayed within the box that firefighters have built around it. 

An evacuation order was lifted on 90 homes, and all evacuation warnings were rolled back. The fire, which has burned thick wilderness in the Point Reyes National Seashore for over three weeks, has not ventured into populated areas, instead burning mixed forest and coastal scrub around campgrounds and trails.

“As most of the public saw, lots of smoke, lots of activity, but it was all very good, a very positive fire,” said Tim Howell, operations chief for the Great Basin Incident Management Team. “It was backing up into itself and cleaning up the unburnt areas. It posed no threat whatsoever of escape.”

The type-one Northern Rockies Incident Management Team that oversaw the fire fight for two weeks has packed up, replaced by the smaller type-three team from the Great Basin. The new team is moving its basecamp from the former San Geronimo Golf Course back to the park headquarters in Bear Valley, to be closer to the fire. Around 150 personnel are committed to the blaze, down from a peak of 585 personnel on Aug. 31.

The seashore remains closed, though the National Park Service is having internal conversations about reopening some areas soon.

In the fire’s first days, Marin County Fire responded, but crews were overmatched by the remote and rapidly growing wildfire, so the park service requested a federal team to lead the fight. A large squad from Montana descended on West Marin, establishing a sprawling basecamp of tents and trailers on the former golf course.

On arrival, operations chiefs identified a box within which the fire could be contained, delineated by a ridge on the north, a road on the east, a wide trail on the south, and the beach on the west. The fire spread never crossed these lines, which were widened by dozers and protected by hoses and water drops. Containment steadily grew as crews extinguished flare-ups and performed backburns along the perimeter.

The Northern Rockies team became local celebrities, as hundreds of residents tuned into their daily briefings, led by operations chief Brandon Cichowski, a forestry technician from Idaho. His long, red beard and calm, methodical disposition enamored viewers who watched him describe the fire’s activity at each edge and how his team planned to attack it. The briefings were the same given to Marin County Fire chief Jason Weber, who said the federal team set a new bar for transparency.

Each evening, scores of residents have gathered along the road in Olema and the San Geronimo Valley to hold signs of gratitude and wave at the firefighters as they return from their shifts. A small crowd gathered in front of the Lagunitas School on Friday donning red-orange outfits and costume beards to celebrate Mr. Cichowski. Duncan Sylvester, a stilt walker from Woodacre, brought out his phoenix regalia and danced around, 10 feet in the air.

“It’s the most fun we’ve had since Covid hit,” said Carol Fagan, who organized the display to show appreciation through humor and theatrics. “And Brandon, we were just in awe of his expertise and his calmness, and his beard.”

Incident management teams are formed by multiple agencies in a region at the beginning of each calendar year and then are requested at fires as needed for two or three weeks at a time. Members come from all different locations and positions, and they are assigned to roles that match what they do at home. 

Team members at this fire have traveled from as far as the East Coast, and they sleep in tents, on cots, in cars and occasionally at hotels. 

“You miss your wife, you miss your kids, but on the other side, you are helping out a community in need, which is what we all signed up for: protecting lives and property,” Great Basin logistics chief Scott Schuster said.

Typically, tents are grouped together, and firefighters gather each morning for a large briefing. But Covid-19 has compelled crews to spread out, and workers are signing in on their phones rather than on paper. 

The Northern Rockies team was successful in controlling the fire, so they left the state on Sunday after spending the weekend bringing the Great Basin team up to speed. The Northern Rockies has over 50 members and all kinds of specialists: fire behavior analysts, air support supervisors, geographic information system specialists and unit leaders supporting food, computers and communications.

The Great Basin team is smaller, with just 16 people on the roster, so the park service is bringing in employees to help out. But since the country is at its most critical level of preparedness, resources are slim.

“For the most part, we are going to be holding this fire with what we’ve got,” incident commander trainee Gabe Cortelyou said. 

Fortunately, the heat wave has passed, and the marine layer is back to its stubborn ways. On Monday, temperatures on top of the Inverness Ridge tarried in the mid-90s, and the fire burned hot. Thin columns of smoke wafted on the east side of the ridge above Limantour Road, and crews patrolled through the night to ensure the fire didn’t cross over. 

On Tuesday, smoke in the atmosphere cast an eerie, orange shadow across the region, as distant fires to the north blocked the sun. The orange hue darkened on Wednesday, creating a mood of doom.

In the coming days, the marine layer is forecasted to coat the forest with fog and drizzle, calming the fire and eroding for only a few hours in the afternoon.

With evacuation orders lifted for three roads in Bear Valley, residents are returning home to hazy skies. Julie and Jim Monson, who live on Fox Drive, returned on Friday after staying with their son in San Francisco. 

“I wanted it to feel kind of triumphant and that we could celebrate, but it was so smoky, and we were so close to the fire, it was actually unnerving,” Ms. Monson said.

Since their return, the smoke has dissipated somewhat and containment increased, so they are looking forward to restoring some normalcy.

The smoke impacting West Marin is not only from the Woodward Fire. Larger fires are burning further north and sending their smoke south. Chief Weber said that Marin residents can expect smoke in the air for months, until a few inches of rainfall ends the fire season. 

Wildfires have already burned more than 2 million acres in California—2 percent of the state’s land—the most recorded in a single year.