Lee Hooten

Lee Hooten  | Shaver Lake

 8-14-2022

Creek Fire

I was serving as a Fire Patrol for Southern California Edison Forestry on September 4, 2020, at approximately 1822 hours, I heard the report of the Creek Fire came over the radio. I carry a radio to monitor other agencies such as Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service, etc. The dispatch I heard placed it near Big Creek, and I responded due to the potential threat and/or damage to SCE property. While in route I was told the fire was below Big Creek and inaccessible. I had another incident being reported, and I canceled my response to the Creek Fire and responded to the new incident. I continued to monitor, but was really busy and was not able to hear everything that was said. I ended my shift and felt confident the
fire would be contained during the night.

On Saturday morning September 5, I woke up at 0400. I could smell smoke and I looked out the door and saw ashes falling. I knew that they had not caught the fire during the night. I started getting dressed and I received a text from my supervisor, Ryan Stewart, advising me to get ready for work and instructions would follow. Ryan met me at my patrol truck and told me the fire was not controlled and they were working on getting a dozer line around Shaver. He told me to patrol Camp Edison for spot fires and to tie in with Camp Edison staff when they arrived, and provide assistance as needed/requested. I did a quick patrol of the campground and did not see any problems. I went down the boat ramp in the day use area and met with several other employees, hosts, and a few campers. It was still dark and we could see a glow in the gap looking towards Shaver Hill. Around daylight Nick Terrio, another Edison Forestry fire patrol, arrived. After meeting with Camp staff, it was decided to close the campground and move all of the camp and forestry vehicles that weren’t being used to the large parking lot in day use for protection from the fire. Chuck Berner was unable to arrive until later due to car problems on the way over. When Steve Byrd, manager over Camp Edison and Forestry arrived he asked about the campground. I told him it had been patrolled and no problems were seen. The decision was made to advise campers of the potential, and allow them to evacuate if they so desired.

Ryan called and asked us to open all the gates on Southern California Edison property. That was done as quickly as possible. Nick and I divided up the areas to cover. Edison has 20,000 acres around Shaver Lake and there are many gates to open. Fire crews and equipment were moving about and access through gates needed to be available when needed. I was asked to go to the Balsam Forebay area and see if I could get a look at the fire coming up towards Ely Mountain and Balsam Forebay. I drove out the Upper 72 Road, which turns off Highway 168 near Balsam parking lot. Upper 72 Road is a high on the mountain and provides many places to look over the area. As I was driving out the road I could see the fire burning near Aspen Meadow below the forebay.  It did not have a rapid rate of spread even though   it was crowning. I was not aware of the exact location of the point of origin and was not sure if there was fire below me. It began to get smoky and I was getting nervous that there might be fire below me. There was no place to turn around. I continued and eventually found a spot wide enough to turn around. I was glad to get back to an area that I felt safer. I talked to some of the local logging companies that were moving their equipment to a safe area.

By now all of the Edison Forestry fire staff was on duty and we divided up the areas where we needed to patrol. I drove back to Shaver Lake and out the Perimeter Road and up the Section 16 Road, which runs from Perimeter Road just above the Eastwood Powerhouse on the North East side of Shaver Lake. The fire was not very active in that area as it had already burned through. The fire was still north of the Perimeter Road and we didn’t want it to cross the road. No action needed to be taken in this area. Later that morning I tied in with Nick and we checked out an area burning from North Fork of Stevenson Creek Bridge along and on the North side of the Perimeter Road. It was creeping around in an area that had
been previously had the brush piled. This was a treatment area to reduce the fuel loading in the event of a fire, such as this. Cal Fire sent crews and equipment to cut off the fire where it was needed. That action kept it from burning down to the lake and causing more damage.

Sunday morning we held a quick briefing and decided where to patrol. I was working mostly around Shaver, Balsam and along Highway 168. I watched the fire burn around Musick Mountain. I thought all of the communication towers and equipment would be burned up. Retardant was dropped heavily on top to divert a communication disaster. All facilities, as I found out later, including the Musick fire lookout tower escaped with little or no damage. The only casualty was the old wooden outhouse, and it wasn’t safe anyway. About noon the fire came rolling off Stevenson Mountain. Everyone except fire personnel had to evacuate from Shaver Lake. The fire crews were burning out in front of the fire and the smoke was lying low to the ground.

We, Camp Edison and Forestry personnel, were told we had to leave. I was hesitant to leave, I had been taught to run to the fire not away from it. But I was no longer a Forest Service fire professional and must follow orders. I had to make a decision on whether or not to take my travel trailer home or to leave it. I decided to take it home. Securing the inside and disconnecting everything and hooking up to my truck, is quite time consuming. I had several offers of help, but due to the increase of fire activity in all areas, the same people offering to help needed to go to their own homes and protect them. Along with everything going on, I started receiving text messages, offers to help, checks on my welfare, the status of my travel trailer, and even the status of the fire. It is hard to get hooked up to the trailer while reading and responding to text messages. I finally got hooked up to the trailer and loaded all I could in the truck. It was really getting dark with smoke and the ashes were raining down. I was keeping a watch for spot fires. I could tell the fire and burnout were getting closer, but I wasn’t concerned. I determined that| had an escape route and safety zone. Finally I was ready to leave and pulled up to Highway 168 and turned my left turn signal on. I looked to my right and I could see the fire roaring, the flames were about 50 to 100 feet high or higher and it was moving my direction. The flame front was somewhere between me and the entrance at Camp Edison. I wanted to turn and go look at it. From where I was looking, I was sure they needed my help. Better sense prevailed and I didn’t think towing a travel trailer into the fire area was such a good idea. I thought I had better sit this one out, I headed west to Prather. Some said I had fire chasing me down Highway 168, but it wasn’t that close. At least I didn’t think so.  I didn’t seen anyone but fire personnel while I traveling down Highway 168. I believe that I was the last one off the hill.

I was home for a couple of days and Ryan called and asked me to meet him at the briefing at Sierra High School. I don’t remember exactly which day it was. Tuesday the 10th or Wednesday the 11th. We listened to the briefing and then Ryan, Nick, Chuck and I met for our own briefing and decided what areas we would patrol and if any of us needed help one of us would go and assist. I checked the roads along Huntington Lake Rd (AKA Big Creek Road). I drove up Snake Pit Road and checked it. The fire had burned the upper part and had a dozer line that was holding. We had burned that area for the last 2 winters and it had done a good job stopping the fire. I drove up Upper Ely Mountain Road and found a 2 acre spot fire in a draw on a switch back on the road where the Snake Pit trail leaves the main road. It was more than I could handle so I notified Ryan and he notified the Cal Fire contact. I continued on towards Balsam Forebay. I monitored part of the fire that was burning near the power line road that runs from the Upper Ely Mountain Road to just above Highway 168. It was a backing fire and I was hoping the road would keep it East of Ely Mountain. The road ended on a ledge above Highway 168 and had a large amount of fuel loading on the ground which would allow the fire would burn through and start burning to the top of Ely Mountain. Much of this area would be steep with heavy fuels. I would report this at our next briefing; it was not an immediate need.

 The next day I was told to meet with a dozer strike team (2 dozers with a strike team leader). They unloaded their dozers at the  Shaver Heliport on Shaver Hill and walked the dozers to the site where the spot fire was yesterday. The spot fire was now about 10 acres with a slow rate of spread. I worked with the strike team leader and we decided where to put in containment lines, along with a contingency line. The ground in this area was very steep, but the dozers were large and did good work. I patrolled a side road where the fire was burning below the road and was low intensity, due to a prescribed burn 2 years ago. I felt as long as it stayed below the road no attention would be required. I would continue to monitor this road also. I went back later and the dozers were done. They were moved to the power line road and put a line from the end of the road to Highway 168 to cut off the continuous fuel I had mentioned earlier. Later that day I mentioned to Ryan that we needed a secondary line between the power line road and Ely Mountain. He told me he would try to get a dozer the next day and I could show them what I wanted done.

He was unable to get a dozer from the fire and asked Huntington Construction for a dozer. I met up with Stan, his dozer had been dropped off at the parking lot at Balsam Forebay parking lot and I told him where I wanted him to work. I went ahead of Stan and was trying to flag where I thought the old road was. I started down an old trail thinking I was on the old road. I soon found that we would not be able to cross the creek the way I was going. I started back to where I had parked my truck. There was an old landing and Stan had cleared it for a turnaround and small safety zone. Fortunately, Stan had not tried to follow my flagging and continued opening the road. He knew where the old road was, I didn’t. I followed him down to the end and he opened a turnaround spot, and continued the line to tie into the line from the power line road. I later talked to Stan when I gave him a ride back to his truck, and mentioned that I was glad he knew where the road was. He told me he knew because he had worked on the logging sale many years ago. Stan gave us a good road, which was a big need when the fire did cross the power line road. We had several crews and engines working the area to hold the fire from going up Ely Mountain. Without the road Stan made access to, Ely Mountain might have burned. I also had Stan open a secondary line from Snake Pit trail to the top of Snake Pit Road. I explained what I wanted, and he told me he was the one who had put the line in 2 years ago. Stan did a great job for us. His skill as an operator and knowledge of the area was invaluable. Thanks Stan.

The next few weeks were all a blur, a few flare ups on Southern California Edison property. We mopped up areas that were still hot along the firelines, and could cause problems later. Many of the fire crews had been moved to other areas of the fire that were not contained. The Edison Forestry fire patrols continued until moisture removed all threat of fire on Edison Property. Ryan provided guidance and kept us encouraged and Steve made sure we and our families were doing ok. Their leadership helped us do what we needed to do to protect Edison property.