Weekly newspaper of Three Rivers, California, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

The Dinely Fire as seen from down canyon soon after it erupted about noon on Wednesday, June 7. (Click arrows for additional photos.)An air tanker dumped several precision-placed loads of retardant on the fire that began Wednesday, June 7. After the retardant line stopped the blaze, helicopters carrying about 800 gallons of water per load doused errant flames.Huge flame lengths were observed as oaks, still stressed from a multi-year drought, and prolific grasses from a wet winter exploded with fire.A hillside above Dinely Drive in Three Rivers shows the vegetation in harm’s way, the fire moving up the slope, and a recent air drop of retardant.Several air tankers were assisting in containing the wildland fire.A blackened, smoldering hillside in the fire's aftermath.

Dinely Fire scorches more than 300 acres

Homes were threatened; containment is near
By: 
John Elliott

 

The tinder-dry grass and brush around Three Rivers is certainly no stranger to fire. And because of the prolific precipitation this past winter and spring, the fuel load is especially heavy.
 
Since 2015, there have been several sizable brush fires on the North Fork and at least five fires near Cobble Knoll and Lake Kaweah. 
 
At least two of the Lake Kaweah blazes were intentionally set though no arsonist was ever charged in connection with any of the area fires. 
 
But this week’s Dinely Fire falls into a separate, more serious category. That’s because dozens of homes were threatened, and Dinely residents were placed on voluntary evacuation. And if they left, they weren’t, for awhile, allowed to return.
 
 
1996 Kaweah Fire
 
Three Rivers has not seen this kind of threat since the August 1996 Kaweah Fire, which occurred when Exeter teenagers parked a vehicle with a heated catalytic converter on dry grass near the Edison swimming hole. That fire exploded up the steep hillside toward the flume above Kaweah River Drive and ultimately threatened to consume homes on Dinely Drive, in Washburn Cove, and for a time threatened employee housing near the Sequoia National Park entrance station.
 
That 1996 blaze burned 5,000 acres and cost in excess of $4 million to suppress. Three weeks later it was declared officially out and the 400 firefighters and support personnel who had spent extended time in Three Rivers were released.
 
The Kaweah Fire received national attention when Bruce Babbitt, then Secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton, arrived in Three Rivers and spent a day cutting fireline with a Hot Shots crew before addressing the media at Lions Arena.
 
 
Dinely Fire erupts
 
The Dinely Fire, which began just before noon on Wednesday, June 7, certainly had some reminiscent moments for Dinely Drive residents. Initially, the fastest burning segments with the biggest flame lengths burned up hill in a mostly northwesterly direction.
 
Residents in the dozen or so homes along upper Dinely Drive near the flash point found themselves staring at a steadily advancing line of fire aimed right at the homes. On steep hillsides, such as those in Three Rivers, while fire works its way uphill, burning debris rolls downhill, spreading flames in both directions.
 
Although not official, the Dinely Fire’s flash point was reportedly above a home accessed via a driveway located just past the cattleguard at the end of Dinely Drive (just under two miles from Highway 198). The homeowner, Trisha Ekema, posted on a social media site that she observed an SCE employee trying to put out a small grass fire above her house but below the flume road. Southern California Edison operates the flume, which provides water for the Kaweah River Drive hydroelectric plant.
 
The fire exploded at about the same time the unidentified employee called 911. That call came into fire dispatch at 11:55 a.m. 
 
Three Rivers Engine 14 was on site within minutes, and soon after the aerial attack began. Cal Fire aerial attack units departed from Porterville and Fresno and flew to Three Rivers.
 
“I had the garden hoses all ready if the fire came onto our property,” said Bill Haxton, who lives about one-third of a mile from where the blaze began. 
 
In the early stages of a wildland fire, there is not much anyone can do except get out of harm’s way. The following succession of aerial drops worked to slow and, in the best-case scenario, steered the fire away from homes and other nearby structures.
 
“Cal Fire had the lead on this incident, and our responsibility was structure protection,” said Charlie Norman, Tulare County fire chief. “We stationed strike teams on Dinely and were prepared to fight and stop the fire if it got into any homes below.”
 
Throughout Tuesday afternoon and into the morning of Thursday, June 8, hand crews, like the nearest ones from Miramonte and Mountain Home, laid down hose and dug fireline. The ground crews kept a vigil through the night from Dinely Drive below and along the ridgetops, monitoring the  glowing embers and hot spots that were lit up like a cityscape on the fire-charred hills.
 
The fire made its last stand Thursday on Bureau of Land Management acreage in rugged terrain along the ridgetops above Dinely Drive and Washburn Cove. At Cal Fire’s noon briefing on Thursday, June 8, the containment was estimated at 35 percent but more than 50 percent was expected by nightfall as crews continued throughout the day to construct control lines and use natural barriers to surround the blaze. 
 
The total amount burned as of noon on Thursday was 339 acres. So what made the critical difference in avoiding a huge disaster? 
 
All the commanders would agree it was the aerial assault and the lack of high winds when the flames were spreading the fastest. When the Dinely Fire was out of control in steep terrain, the aerial assault of the seven aircraft stopped the blaze with a line of retardant and water before it could get into the homes below.
 
On Thursday, cooler temperatures also greatly assisted the control effort.
 
Tulare County Fire Department mobilized multiple strike teams with 24 personnel devoted almost solely to structure protection and tying in the containment on the east side of the fire with what the other agencies were doing on the west side of the fire.
 
No structures were destroyed in the blaze. There have been three injuries reported.
 
More totals and the official cause of the blaze will be made public after full containment and when Cal Fire investigators conclude their investigation.    
 
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