When the Rim Fire broke out August 17, firefighters from all over California were sent in to battle the blaze, considered one of the largest in the state’s history.
One of them was veteran Novato firefighter Battalion Chief Jeff Veliquette, who spent 11 nights on the front lines, as part of the Office of Emergency Services Strike Team. The team worked in 12 hour shifts through the night, sleeping in tents or in cots at the makeshift base camp.
He returned Saturday.
“What was difficult is that it was very fast moving fire,” Veliquette told Patch. “It was doubling in size every day... The fuel (the trees and grass) were burning extremely hot and the fire was jumping from ridge to ridge…It was just a shower of embers.”
As of Tuesday, the fire has swallowed 350 square miles and destroyed multiple structures, according to media reports. Hundreds of head of cattle are believed to have been caught in the conflagration and are presumed dead. Despite raging for two weeks, the fire is still only 75 percent contained and authorities estimate it will take until September 20 to fully contain.
Veliquette oversaw a team of five engines and 22 firefighters responsible for structural defense, that is protecting homes, cabins and other buildings from the fire’s path of destruction.
To do so, the group cut overhanging tree limbs and moved large items like patio furniture and wood logs away from homes to reduce flammable materials that would only feed the flames.
“A lot of times the embers will fall and start a fire, so we were able to be right there and jump on it and keep it from burning it into the home,” he said. His team also lit backfires around homes, a technique that creates a buffer against the wildfire.
How did they get through the experience, subsisting on two to three hours of sleep a night?
“It was a lot of adrenaline, a tremendous amount of team work and knowing the chain of command,” said Veliquette, who credits his team with saving at least four ranger homes and more than a dozen cabins.
Veliquette was one of 80 firefighters from Marin County who responded to the Rim Fire, which authorities say is the fourth largest in California’s history. While Veliquette was fighting the fire in and around Yosemite National Park, several other Novato firefighters were sent to other spots around the state.
Captain Steve White, Engineer Owen Valuch, Kari Hamby and Keef Kiser were sent to the Corral Fire in the Trinity Alps, while Captain Chis Wikeen was deployed to the Butler Fire located in the Salmon River Complex in Siskiyou County.
This year has been brutal for wildfires in California, with less rainfall causing especially dry conditions that turn grass, trees and shrubbery into highly flammable fuel for a wildfire.
“We’ve had a severe drought, so there’s very little snowpack, which melted off early in the season so trees didn’t have time to absorb the water,” Veliquette said. "It's been a very busy season for firefighters."