When a wildland incident like the Wednesday, June 7, Dinely Fire breaks out, it’s an understatement to describe those initial moments as “all hell breaks loose.” It’s a frenetic scene.
The Dinely Fire’s most frantic moments all happened near the flashpoint at about 11:20 a.m. and continued with the first air tanker retardant drop 25 minutes later. According to Trish Ekema, an eyewitness and on whose property the blaze started, what she saw was an SCE employee trying to douse flames with an extinguisher while on his cell phone reporting the fire.
“At first I was a little annoyed that he wasn’t answering me when I asked him what was happening,” said Trish. “I quickly realized he was on the phone with 911. Within moments, the fire exploded up the hill and jumped the flume.”
Trish and her husband, James Gebert, have a unique relationship with SCE. Their property is located 1.75 miles up Dinely Drive and contains a small compound of their structures and a gated easement road used by SCE personnel to access the flume that runs in a westerly direction on the uphill portion of the Ekema-Gebert acreage.
The flume is less than a quarter-mile above their house. Just above the house is a workshop building. There is also a guest house.
A short distance uphill from where Trish said the fire started is a well with a pipe connection running a couple hundred feet down to the next-door neighbor’s house to the west on Dinely Drive.
With flames racing uphill, Trish broadcast a live Facebook post to let her “Master Splinter” followers know that there was a wildfire burning in the Dinely Drive neighborhood. Master Splinter, a Marley’s Mutts rescue dog with an incredible story of redemption, has over 20,000 followers on social media.
By 11:30 a.m., just 10 minutes after the fire started, the first fire engines had arrived on the scene.
“I could see the huge plume of smoke from Highway 198 that was coming from Three Rivers,” said Andy Turner, Cal Fire’s Chief of the Kaweah Battalion. “I immediately ordered all available aircraft to proceed to Three Rivers and begin making retardant drops.”
Trish recalled seeing the first drop of retardant around 11:45 a.m., less than 30 minutes after the blaze broke out. From that moment on, fire engines, water tenders, strike teams, and at least 15 different fire crews arrived on site in a steady procession to fight the blaze and ensure that no homes were lost.
Tulare County Fire Department personnel were assigned structure protection; Cal Fire’s firefighters and all the others who joined the ground battle were tasked with stopping the fire’s northerly march and getting containment around the perimeter.
“I’m not sure what time it was but the wind suddenly shifted,” Trish said. “The fire was still burning rapidly uphill but now flames were also creeping downhill right toward the house.”
That’s when one of the retardant drops scored a direct hit on Ekema’s workshop and the ground uphill from the structure. Trish said Cal Fire has offered to help with the clean-up of the reddish-pink Phos-Chek slurry, but she’s not concerned, she said, just extremely grateful for the drops, especially the load that protected her structures.
Phos-Chek, the retardant used by Cal Fire, is manufactured in a dry powder or liquid concentrate. It is diluted with water for use.
It’s applied ahead of a wildfire to homes and vegetation by ground crews and aerial firefighting units, either fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft.
The red color aids the aerial crews in targeting the drops. It is mostly composed of ammonium polyphosphate, clay, and a guar gum derivative. There are also trade secret performance additives.
The manufacturer claims there are no harmful effects to humans but should not be ingested internally. Trish said one of her foster dogs became ill briefly and it is probable that it was caused by ingesting the retardant.
At the height of the fire fight, Trish said, it was like watching and listening to a symphony. Early on in the fire, she was advised to evacuate but she was busy rounding up her several dogs and cat and never did end up leaving.
“I was so impressed with Cal Fire,” Trish said. “Once those 15 fire crews arrived at our house, I never felt so safe in all my life.”
Chief Turner said that there were as many as 11 aircraft at the peak of the Dinely Fire. Of these, four were air tankers – two BAe-146/RJ85 (British Aerospace air tanker) and two Type-3 S-2 trackers. The BAe air tankers are capable of carrying up 3,000 gallons of retardant while the older S-2 trackers can carry up to 1,200 gallons.
The other aircraft were four helicopters and one fixed-wing spotter aircraft. The National Park Service helicopter unit was the only aircraft that remained on Dinely Fire for the entire incident. All units were released on Sunday, June 11.
At the peak of the fire, there were 30 engine and truck companies, three water tenders, and four bulldozers.
A collection of bones was recovered during some of the earth-moving activity. The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department has since identified the bones as non-human.
Throughout the Dinely incident there were 556 fire and support personnel on duty. With each day that passed until the fire was declared out on Sunday, the total number of personnel was halved daily. Agencies that assisted were the California Highway Patrol, Tulare County Fire and Sheriff’s departments, Cal Office of Emergency Services, California Department of Corrections, Bureau of Land Management, NPS, U.S. Forest Service, and the American Red Cross.
Firefighters came from many areas of California and included eight strike teams with 16-crew Type 1 and Type 2 Hotshots. The Mountain Home and Miramonte hand crews laid the bulk of the thousands of feet of hose and dug the fire line on the perimeter.
The total acreage burned was 339 acres and never spread beyond the June 7 total.
“We were extremely fortunate in that we could jump on this fire as soon as it got going,” said Battalion Chief Turner. “It was the aerial response that made the critical difference and the fact that there were no other fires burning. We had all the resources at our disposal.”
NPS fire crews were conducting the annual Ash Mountain prescribed fire when the Dinely Fire ignited and raged out of control. They immediately suppressed their foothills burn and raced to the scene to assist with the Three Rivers wildland fire.
There is still a Cal Fire team actively at work on the accounting of the fire’s cost and an investigation of the cause. Those results are expected to be made public soon.