While the Rough Fire has now consumed over 100,000 acres of forest, a valiant effort from firefighters has thus far helped save the community of Hume Lake from the blaze. FM89's Ezra David Romero takes us to the front lines to hear exactly how that happened.
On a reporting trip two weeks ago in the Sierra Nevada I was told to evacuate the Hume Lake Christian Camps area as the Rough Fire burned a mile and half away from the camp. Smoke was thick and ash began to fall from the sky.
Phillip Hamilton is a fire captain for the Hume Lake Volunteer Fire Department.
ROMERO: “So this fire got really close?"
PHILLIP: “It did. Closer than anything we’d seen at this magnitude before.”
Even though crews fought the blaze, the fire made it to the Hume Lake dam three-quarters of a mile away from the popular mountain destination.
“We could clearly see a large smoke column building at the dam," says Hamilton. "There was a spot fire to the right of the dam on the hillside that had started and the crews quickly were on that. You could hear chainsaws working and as they were trying to cut line around it.”
Today Hume Lake is safe, but the camp is being evacuated again not because of fire but because of poor air quality due to the amount of smoke still in the area.
Even still Hamilton says because the community is on the side of a canyon the camp could have easily gone up in smoke.
“I can recall a couple different times hearing radio transmissions from helicopter pilots saying that it’s miraculously holding on a ridge and they didn’t have explanation for that," Hamilton says. "From my religious belief I can attest to why I think that happened the way it did. Because there were several different moments that it looked like it could have been a very dire situation.”
The actual lake is abnormally low due to the drought and because air crews are using lake water to fight the fire with. As Executive Camp Director Dathan Brown and I stand at the shores edge I throw a couple stones into what now looks like a puddle.
“Thankfully we got all of the kids from summer camp off the property back a couple weeks ago on a Saturday," Brown says. "They were thinking it was starting to look alright in this area then the next day it started to ramp up significantly.”
They speak of luck because the basin the camp is in acts sort of like a barbecue pit full of coals ready for lighting. Forest conditions because of drought, bark beetle damage and lack of natural fires in the region were ready to burn. Fresno Fireman and Rough Fire spokesman Paul Garnier escorted me around the Rough Fire burn area.
“This camp is situated in a basin," Garnier says. "There’s a low lying area below the dam. All that super-heated air runs up that canyon preheats all those fuels and basically makes an uphill blow torch. It’s a miracle in itself that this camp has been saved.”
The Christian camp mobilized followers around the globe to pray. There’s no way to determine that their prayers were the community’s saving grace, but from a viewpoint on a vista east of the camp the fire’s severity is evident.
ROMERO: “We’re here.”
PAUL: “This is where the fire met the road. This is where the crews prepped the road and all the brush along the side the road to help prepare for the impending fire.”
Crews fought the blaze by creating lines of defense. In some areas they cleared out brush and debris choking out the fire. In other areas like the one Paul and I are at, crews lit the forest on fire and managed those burns so they’d meet the approaching active blaze.
“Fire does run up hill and by looking at the different fire lines that were put in place around the camp you can clearly see that is one of the things that saved the camp," says Garnier.
The Rough Fire has yet to be contained and is leaving in its path large swaths of forest as a moonscape behind it. And even though the community of Hume Lake is safe for now forest conditions above the camp unaltered by fire are ready to burn.
“There are still a lot of fuels that are still alive but just such a dense tree area it wouldn’t take much for those different fuels to go off," Hamilton says. "So it’s just an area that’s in this secluded little bowl that hasn’t see fire for some time.”
As the ring of fire grows the next line of activity is just a few miles from the iconic Cedar Grove at Roads end. And as the blaze slowly encroaches on that area of forest, perhaps Hume Lake Christian Camp’s extended community of prayers should be focused there.