Saturday, Sept. 29 was the 20 year anniversary of the human-caused Cleveland Fire in El Dorado County, ultimately burning 24,580 acres and claiming the lives of two air tanker pilots. Fire personnel, mostly retired, opened up about their personal experience with the fire, many only serving the first few days before teams from outside the area took over.
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Greg Keller, superintendent of the Eldorado Hotshot Crew, was the first firefighter on the scene. He was incident commander for the first several hours of the fire.
“I had put my crew to work on a thinning project in the Kyburz area and was headed to Placerville with one of my crew foreman, Lisa Fisher, when the fire started,” Keller said. “We arrived moments after the lookout call reporting the fire. It was about a quarter-acre at the time and contained between Highway 50 and the first switchback turn of the Ice House Road.”
Keller arrived without a fire engine and quickly ordered more resources to fight the small blaze.
His first thought was to “take the head out of the fire,” he said, by fighting at Ice House Road. “This plan was immediately rendered useless when a small spot fire started on the opposite side of the Ice House Road. This spot grew from a dinner plate sized fire to a fire the two of us were unable to contain within a matter of seconds.”
He ordered the Big Hill Helitack Crew to the west flank of the fire, the only initial line that would hold during the entire burn.
Bob Bell, superintendent of the Sikorsky S-58T, said that the crew was “on base at Big Hill when the fire was reported. The flight time was 3 or 4 minutes.” They gave conditions for the fire as “10-15 acres, rapid rate of spread, 100-foot flame lengths, with spotting 1/4 of a mile ahead” and then requested the fire be upgraded to a full second alarm.
“The crew and I went to work on the left flank and fired out a small piece along the Ice House Road to secure our anchor point,” Bell said.
“Not long after, I went to Peavine Ridge to try and hold the fire at the ridge. It blew past us like we had done nothing. This is when I realized that eventually I would be conducting some structure protection at my own station.”
Bell would work a 66-hour shift, in charge of protecting “the facilities at Big Hill, which included my office, the aircraft hangar, the lookout, all of my crew’s personal belongings and vehicles, and lots of additional infrastructure. After the fire burned over us three times, from the west, then the east and then a lighter run from the north, all that was standing was the office and the hangar. We had moved the vehicles into the hangar.” He said it was a “difficult couple of hours.”
Meanwhile, the Eldorado Hotshots had arrived and Keller put them to good use.
“When the Eldorado Hotshots arrived, I put them to work on the east flank. We tried to establish an anchor point constructing line uphill working with the Grizzly Flat Engine but were unsuccessful. We attempted several lines and fell back to the D’Amico property across from the St. Pauli Inn, to try again,” Keller recalled. They were supported by two Cal Fire, then known as California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection or CDF, engines and a CDF inmate crew. “This line was also unsuccessfuland then we went into structure protection mode and planning for an indirect attack.”
The U.S. Forest Service’s Ken Gaynor was on the first fire engine that responded to the call when the fire broke out, coming from about four miles outside of Pollock Pines.
As they turned off Ice House Road, “the fire was approaching from the east and we started to lay hose up the slope.” The hose ran up the switchback of the road. He said there was “pretty intense fire conditions.” He left the crew to go assist elsewhere, walking past more responding engines. As he did, he found the fire burning towards the nearby river, with fire spotting starting across the river — a bad sign. Cabins were across the river. Some would later be saved while others were lost to the conflagration.
As Gaynor was picked up by another engine, heading towards the Cleveland Corral — near where the fire initially started and where the fire got its name — more spotting was found. “There was nothing we could do but back off,” Gaynor said. “It was too intense. We had to wait for more resources.”
As Gaynor was responding, Dennis McDowell of Cal Fire was enjoying a Thanksgiving-style lunch with his crew. The alarm sounded at noon, forcing Engine 17 to skip the meal and head to the fire. They were second behind Gaynor’s engine.
McDowell helped with laying hose between Ice House Road and Highway 50. The plan, he said, was to “stop it from going up the canyon to Peavine Ridge. That failed.” CDF made its way up Ice House Road. “An hour later, we came back down.” Hoses, McDowell said, had to be dragged out of the quickly approached flames. Some hoses had to be left behind, with the hose and the brass parts completely burned when they were later retrieved.
He passed the Forest Service’s Bob Smart, who would essentially be in command of the fire, as McDowell passed the staging area. Two CDF bulldozers were dispatched near St. Pauli Inn, where more hose was being laid. By this time, helicopters and air tankers littered the air, with a large amount of manpower devoted to the still-growing conflagration.
McDowell pressed on, going about 800 feet down a slope to fight the fire, when the dozers had to be called. Power lines were arcing. “Twenty spark fires started over a half mile. We ran.” The group became separated, with half the engines going uphill, half going downhill. It took an hour for the flames to die down enough to regroup. “It just took off,” McDowell recalled.
Bill Smith had arrived not long after McDowell. Smith, a CDF Investigator, was put to work doing public relations, managing the media as they came for the story. After they left, he was put to work.
“The wind was really blowing,” he said. “The humidity was at 3 percent. The wind was 60 mph, the fire was sucking the wind up the slope.” He remembered seeing a spot fire below the deck of St. Pauli Inn, and the house next door was aflame. He crossed a bridge to where about eight summer cabins were in danger, but only one was lost.
Smith found himself trying to put out a “great, big Ponderosa pine with two-feet-thick bark.” He and a few others were working on the fire around the tree when a large piece of bark fell. “It fell 80 feet, hit the ground and exploded like a grenade. It threw me 15 feet; my hard hat flew off.” McDowell added that this is not unheard of, that the bark will fall off the tree “like a guillotine.”
The downed investigator told the others with him to drag him to safety. His stepdaughter, Kamron, who had arrived on another engine to fight her fist major fire, joined the efforts to get him to safety. When asked how she could help, Smith recalled that he yelled, “Get me a beer.” Smith, after only three and a half hours of fighting the fire, was sent off to the hospital.
Bob Smart of the Forest Service had a “nagging sense” that a fire similar to the Ice House fire of 1959 could occur due to the weather conditions and he was proven right. After the original fire, tree “plantations” had been planted to renew what was lost. In 1992, those trees were almost ready to be harvested. Instead, they became the Cleveland Fire.
When Smart arrived, he linked up with Darrell Stockdale, the incident commander for the fire, in a Sacramento Municipal Utility District yard and the pair took to the sky in a helicopter.
“That fire took off like a shot,” he said, seeing it happen from the air. “We had to get troops out of the way.”
“People would say, ‘If you throw enough equipment at it, can’t you catch it?'” Despite ordering numerous resources, including Hot Shot crews and water sources, he said all of it “was not going to make a dent. The fire got up and ran.”
The equipment did allow for a single flank to be secured. “Pollock Pines didn’t burn. The west side, Pollock Pines and Camino,” he said.
Smart had to order in outside help to relieve the local personnel by the end of the first evening. An incident command post was set up at the fairgrounds.
Air Tanker 61, a DC-7, crashed, killing the two pilots, Leonard Martin and Charles Sheridan, and started a fire. Don Errington, timber management officer for the Pacific District of the Forest Service, recalled seeing the plane vanish. “The tanker made a turn and never came back. It started another fire. Fighting fires is exciting an adrenaline rush, but a tragedy like that changes the tenor of the fire. Everybody felt it, it changed everything…it’s the exclamation mark.”
Smart agreed. “We’re adrenaline junkies,” he said, eyes glistening from remembering. He paused before continuing. “When you’re busting your butt, and an air tanker goes in, the reality of it,” he said, trailing off. “The night it happened, the team at the fairgrounds was beat up. We’re doing everything we can, we can’t do it. I gave them a pep talk,” he said.
It would take two weeks to put the fire out, with the fire being controlled on Oct. 14, 1992. According to a document by Gerald L. Adams, published on the Forest Service’s Website, the fire caused more than $245 million damage, plus an additional $16 million for suppression. A total of 72 injuries and two deaths were recorded. In the end, the fire cost an estimated $10,683 per acre burned.