Of course, as soon as I post an encouraging follow up to my original article on the Mill and Mountain Fires, the latter jumps its containment lines and flares up again in a big way. After its ignition, the Mountain Fire had been attacked effectively by firefighters and within a few days it had grown to what seemed it maximum extent. The majority of the fire had been contained, its heat signatures had gone cold and little smoke was produced in the places where it still smoldered. All in all, it seemed like the threat had passed.
That all changed on Saturday. The area was experiencing a fair amount of wind, evidence of the changing weather systems. The wind kicked up the fire, propelled it over the containment line and into fresh, unburned terrain. This terrain was closer to the town of Gazelle and the surrounding farms than the fire had been at any point previous.
As it happened, I had planned on being out that way that evening anyway. It was a full moon and the best position to be in to capture the moon rising over Mount Shasta that sunset was at the south end of the Shasta Valley. I had planned on taking up a position on Stewart Springs Road. However, the sight of the large pyrocumulus rising up from the fire caused me to change plans and I headed up Old 99 a bit to see what was going on with the fire. I found a place where I was safely off that road, which had a lot of traffic on, with firefighters from all over the area racing to attack the flames.
The fire was immediately evident and the column of smoke rose dramatically over the hills. The area hummed with activity, as at least 7 helicopters made sortie after sortie dumping their buckets on the fire, refilling their buckets in a nearby pond and heading back to the fire. From my position on Old 99, I was close enough to get rained on by the overflow from the full buckets if the helicopters swung a little wide to the east from the ponds. Meanwhile, a VLAT and spotter plan arrived and proceeded to make 8 passes, dropping retardant in areas to establish a perimeter for the fire.
The flurry of activity in the area was complimented by the fire crews heading up Gazelle Callahan Road and into Mack Gulch to attack on the ground. All of the firefighting efforts were as exciting as watching the fire itself. I tip my hat to the pilots and the ground crews.
I took a lot of images from the fire and it was hard to narrow it down to the collection I did, so please forgive the overabundance of images from this event! I will provide short commentary for them.
A lot of these pictures should be enlarged, to see some of the detail of what was going on.
When I arrived on the scene, the sun was setting behind the column of smoke, giving it an eerie feeling.
A helicopter takes off as the sun peeks through the Mountain Fire’s smoke.
A geyser of flame bursts over the hill’s horizon as the sun sinks into the smoke. Enlarge this one and see the helicopter about to drop water on the flame.
Another view of the column of smoke and the setting sun.
The second of 8 retardant drops from the 737 VLAT.
The third run from the VLAT. I watched its first run but did not have the camera trained on it so missed capturing it. This particular plane is on lone from New South Wales, Australia.
The smoke and alpenglow sky is a dramatic backdrop for a helicopter heading back to refill its bucket.
Flying past the fires.
The fourth run of the VLAT. The thin white smoke above the pink retardant is the contrail left by the spotter plane. The spotter marks the location for the retardant and the VLAT pilot follows after and makes the drop.
The sun is barely visible through the smoke and clouds just before it sets behind the mountains. This was a dramatic, and really memorable sight.
The VLAT made its fifth run as the sun sank below the horizon. Note the small spotter plane just above the sun. That’s an NAR OV-10 Bronco. As noted in the picture, these planes have a twin boom configuration.
Two helicopters head into the maelstrom. Bonnet Rock is in the lower left.
The VLAT changed the location of the drop after its fifth run. Its sixth run was on the south side of the fire and I missed it, not expecting the change. I was ready for the seventh though and captured this shot as the plane dropped the load amidst a number of helicopters working the flames with water. Note the spotter plane at the top, on the edge of the smoke plume. All of these guys are really impressive pilots!
Watching this particular scene felt like I had been transported into the film “Apocalypse Now”. It was hard not to hear “Ride of the Valkyries” in my mind while watching these 6 helicopters head toward the fire at the same time. A very different war…
A closer look at one of the burning areas. A close examination on the right side of the fire while reveal a fire cyclone. Those are really intense conditions!
By the time dark began to descend, it was obvious the fire had grown considerably. From a few small flames when I arrived to a massive wall of fire, it had gotten fearsome as it crept eastward toward Gazelle.
It the dark, the fury of the fire was evident and terrible.
In the midst of the firestorm, I happened to look behind me and suddenly realized there was supposed to be a full moon. I could see it just beginning to breach the horizon near Mount Shasta. It was not where I had planned on being but here it was and I could still get Mount Shasta in the same frame, if only as a silhouette. The smoke caused the moon to glow red. It was a shocking and surreal sight. After this, I decided to head home but planned on coming back out in the morning to check the fire’s status.
I returned my spot on Old 99 early in the morning. The fire still burned, putting off a haunting red glow in the dark of night. As fate would have it, however, the full moon I had watched rise a few hours earlier was now in a position to set near the fire. Strange sights indeed.
The fire itself had moved into new territory but its overall intensity was not what it had been the previous night. Hopefully its ferocity would continue to abate.
As it grew lighter, I decided to head over to Truchas Ridge to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately the area was fairly smoky so, while the sky was colorful, Mount Shasta was not very visible.
Looking back west toward the fire, no flames were visible and the smoke hung low to the ground, mostly collecting the gulches near the burning area. This was good, since it meant the wind was not driving the fire like it had the day before.
The efforts to contain the fire have continued, with ground crews and air attack persisting through Sunday and into Monday. In the end, it is unfortunate that the fire broke containment but the efforts to corral the beast were swift, unrelenting, and hopefully successful. I, however, will refrain from any further prognostication about where the fire is out or not, since I have given the “all clear” twice and brought disaster with each call.