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Flames leap from trees as the Dixie Fire jumps Highway 89 north of Greenville in Plumas County on Tuesday, Aug. 3. Dry and windy conditions have led to increased fire activity as firefighters battle the blaze which ignited July 14. An Imperial Valley strike team was expected home by late Wednesday, Aug. 4. | AP PHOTO/NOAH BERGER

Imperial Valley Strike Team Whistles ‘Dixie’

As of Thursday, Aug. 5, the Northern California Blaze Was Close to Reaching the Top Five on the State's List of Largest Forest Fires

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QUINCY — One man is an old pro at battling wildland blazes, and one is a relative babe in the woods, with just over a year under his belt in the fire service, yet both experienced what might go down as one of the largest fires in modern California history.

As the Dixie Fire in Northern California’s Lassen National Forest in the mountains of Butte and Plumas counties has exploded over the past few days and grew to more than 361,800 acres on Thursday night, Aug. 5, a five-member crew from the Holtville Fire Department made its way out of the woods and arrived home after nearly two consecutive weeks assisting some 5,000 fire service members from throughout the Western United States.

For Holtville Firefighter Sean McLaughlin, age 20, who just joined Holtville fire in July 2020, this was his literal “trial by fire” on a wildland fire strike team.

For his boss, Holtville Chief Alex Silva, who has been one of three Imperial County strike team commanders since 2008, this was yet another in a long line of forest fires.

Holtville Fire Department personal, Firefighter Sean McLaughlin (from left), Capt. Eric Espinoza, Chief Alex Silva, Engineer Sergio Hernandez, and Firefighter Edward Rubin, were part of a 20-member strike team that included El Centro and Centinela State Prison personnel that spent nearly two weeks in the Lassen National Forest helping save homes and structures in the Dixie Fire. The crews were to arrive home sometime Wednesday, Aug. 4. Silva was the strike team’s commander. | ALEX SILVA PHOTO

Yet this one was a doozy by anyone’s standards. On Thursday, Aug. 5, the Dixie Fire has moved up to No. 6 on the list of the state’s all-time largest forest fires and was still moving upward, a few thousand acres from the top five.

“It’s kind of crazy that the first one I’ve been on was such a large scale. I’ve seen the other news reports saying the size of the fire and then, you know, we get the reports here at base camp showing us the scope of the fire,” McLaughlin said from the Quincy base camp shortly after he awoke on Sunday, Aug. 1, his day off. The crews worked 24 hours on and 24 hours off.

Silva said the Dixie Fire is not the largest fire he’s been to, but on Sunday he said it was darn close.

Holtville Fire Department crews take a photo upon their first day of arrival at base camp in Quincy to assist the nearly 6,000 firefighters assigned to battle the wildland blaze. The local strike team deployed on July 20. | ALEX SILVA PHOTO

“Silverado was the biggest one, but not much bigger,” the chief said. “This is huge.”

Silva might have been getting mixed up a bit if he was referring to the Silverado Fire in October and November 2020 in Orange County in which 13,390 acres burned.

The Dixie Fire, which was at just 35 percent containment on Thursday night, has been burning for three weeks, has seen as many as 6,500 fire personnel assigned to it at one time, and has resulted in the confirmed loss of 45 homes and commercial structures, according to the latest update from Cal Fire.

Silva, McLaughlin, and Holtville fire crew members Capt. Eric Espinoza, Engineer Sergio Hernandez, and Firefighter Edward Rubin were part of a 20-member strike team that included El Centro and Centinela State Prison personnel, a crew from Yuma County and a replacement crew from Mule Creek State Prison in Ione after a Brawley Fire Department crew was turned back when its fire engine broke down after the local group was deployed on July 20, Silva said.  

(Read an earlier report from El Centro Fire Department on its strike team members)

Split into two staging areas, Silva and his crews have been assigned to structure protection in the more populous east zone of the fire, where they have kept to “working to coordinate structure protection in the Keddie Structure Group, (where) firefighters have assessed and prepared structures along Chandler Road and the Highway 70 corridor,” according to a report from interim El Centro Fire Chief Cedric Ceseña late last week. The Chandler Road and Highway 70 corridor is located on the eastern edge of the fire, immediately north of the town of Quincy, where base camp is located.

Holtville, El Centro, and Centinela State Prison spent several days helping protect structures by working the Dixie Fire in a remote area off railroad tracks on the southeastern edge of the fire footprint, which was about 250,000 acres of the Lassen National Forest. | PHOTO COURTESY OF EL CENTRO FIRE DEPARTMENT

Silva said the local strike team had fared pretty well, not losing a single structure as they hopped around the area, first working the community of Greenville, inside the town of Quincy, and at a Boys and Girls Club compound called Oakland Feather River Camp.

Sadly, on Thursday, as the fire raged anew on the eastern boundaries, the city of Greenville was completely overrun by fire, incinerating much of the community of 1,000 people.

For their part, the local strike team in its assignment also trailed behind a water tanker on difficult terrain along railroad tracks, dousing brush and cutting fire lines on ridges overlooking the tracks, Silva said on Sunday.

It’s been a valuable experience for McLaughlin, and well, it’s the kind of work that Silva really enjoys.

“I just wanted the experience, and it pays good, so I was happy for both,” McLaughlin said Sunday. “It’s definitely been interesting and a lot to learn, just being around the base camp, because there’s so many more firefighters around here. So, there’s so much knowledge to learn.

“Yeah, I definitely think I’ll sign up and try and come out as soon as I can,” he added, and he hopes to stay in the fire service as long as possible.

For Silva, although he said the hours are long, the mattresses hard, and the food pretty bad, there’s elements to that job that keep him coming back for more.

Photos from base camp in Quincy on a day off Sunday, Aug. 1 while working the Dixie Fire in the Lassen National Forest shows the sheer number of fire personnel from around the country. Some 5,000 fire personnel alone were staying at the Quincy camp. | ALEX SILVA PHOTO

“These guys, a lot of us, they grew up wanting to do this and be firefighters, and so we actually see the gratitude that the public has. … This is why we do what we do, and it is an extra boost,” Silva said.

“I’m blessed to have such dedicated hard workers, and that’s a reflection on their departments and their fire chiefs,” he said. “I’ve asked so much of them, and they have that mental toughness. … we have a great bunch of guys working for us.”

And, Silva said, he could not have been a strike team leader for the last 13-plus years with an understanding family and wife at home who supports his lengthy deployments.

“My family makes it happen.”

TOP 10 CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES

FIRE NAME DATECOUNTYACRESSTRUCTUREDEATHS
1. AUGUST COMPLEX AUGUST 2020Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Tehama, Glenn, Lake, Colusa1,032,6489351
2. MENDOCINO COMPLEXJULY 2018Colusa, Lake, Mendocino, Glenn459,1232801
3. SCU LIGHTNING COMPLEXAUGUST 2020Stanislaus, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin396,6242220
4. CREEK FIRESEPTEMBER 2020Fresno, Madera379,8958530
5. LNU LIGHTNING COMPLEXAUGUST 2020Napa, Solano, Sonoma, Yolo, Lake, Colusa363,2201,4916
6. DIXIE FIRE* JULY 2021 Butte, Plumas 361,812*45*0
7. NORTH COMPLEXAUGUST 2020Butte, Plumas, Yuba318,9352,35215
8. THOMASDECEMBER 2017 Ventura, Santa Barbara 281,8931,0632
9. CEDAROCTOBER 2003San Diego273,2462,82015
10. RUSHAUGUST 2012Lassen271,911 CA / 43,666 NV00
DATA PROVIDED BY CAL FIRE/(*data still changing)