Firefighter explains difficulty in fighting Lava Fire over dangerous, hot lava tubes

Mike Meyer
Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers
View of the Lava Fire on Sunday (June 27, 2021) evening. The fire grew from 220 acres on Sunday morning to more than 1,400 acres by Monday morning.

Several people who attended a community meeting about the Lava Fire Monday night questioned how the blaze had been allowed to grow exponentially between the time it was ignited by lightning on Thursday, only to explode in size on Saturday.

As of Tuesday morning, the fire grew to more than 13,000 acres after doubling in size on both Monday and Tuesday, driven north on high, hot winds.

About 70 members of the public attended the meeting, held at College of the Siskiyous. People were glad to have the information and appreciative of the work being done by about 400 firefighters, bulldozer units and air support teams.

More:What we know about the Lava Fire Tuesday: Fire grows to nearly 13,500 acres, 20% contained

Erratic winds and smoke columns prevented aircraft from getting close enough to drop water on the flames on Monday.

North-northwest winds drove fire across Highway 97, and, as of Monday night, had moved flames a mile northwest of the highway, according to Jeff Hinson, Operations Section Chief for the California Interagency Incident Management Team 14.

Hinson and several other fire officials from CIIMT, the Shasta Trinity National Forest and Calfire spoke during the community fire update, which was also broadcast live on Facebook, although the audio was difficult to hear clearly.

“Monday night, the winds and fire were very active until about 3 a.m.,” said Adrienne Freeman, public information officer for Shasta Trinity National Forest. 

“When we know how dry it is, why wasn't the fire addressed more aggressively at the beginning,?” a woman asked.

“Saturday morning the fire was small. I'm disappointed because if you'd put it out Saturday, we wouldn't be in this situation right now,” said a man, whose comments were echoed with agreement from those in the audience.

Todd Mack, Shasta Trinity National Forest Fire Management Officer, told community members teams went in immediately when the fire was ignited Thursday during the thunderstorm.

He explained that firefighters worked through Thursday night and all day Friday on the fire.

“Friday afternoon, after they'd been on it around 24 hours, the fire was contained. Then the incident commander had a helicopter drop another 7,000 gallons, to ensure that it was dead out," Mack said. "And then they did another grid, walked it, hand-felt it, there was no heat, no smokes. So they called it ‘contained.’”

Mack continued, “They left at 4 p.m. on Friday. The plan was, first thing in the morning, 6 a.m., they'd come back and do a grid, put out any smokes.

More:Fireworks banned in Mount Shasta: Hot temps, low moisture, Lava Fire contributed to decision

"By about 8 o’clock (Friday night) people saw smoke in the vicinity – it had squirted out probably through one of the lava tubes."

Mack and others explained that lava tubes are extremely hot and that it’s more difficult (on the ground) to fight fire in the tubes and crevices. 

"You look down in a crevice, but you can't see anything if its deep, but embers can drop on brush and debris down in there,” Mack said. “They're deep crevices in the area, could be 50 feet deep, a foot or a few feet wide. If an ember gets down in there, it burns the fuel and can travel and comes up to the surface again. (The new) fire popped up outside the line."

Mack didn't know how exactly the fire reignited but offered the lava tube theory. "I don't know. When they left, there was no fire."