Blaze shows firefighters they're only human

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Carson City Fire Chief Stacey Giomi talks about the Waterfall fire from the top of Kings Canyon Road on Wednesday.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Carson City Fire Chief Stacey Giomi talks about the Waterfall fire from the top of Kings Canyon Road on Wednesday.

The unforgiving nature of last summer's Waterfall fire carried with it painful lessons.

Some of the 18 families who lost their homes found their insurance wasn't adequate. Others discovered defensible space means nothing when the empty lot next door is overgrown. Residents learned an all-consuming fire can happen here.

And Carson City fire fighters learned they're only human.

"To have this happen was devastating to us personally. We're used to succeeding," said Fire Chief Stacey Giomi. "I think the biggest lesson for me was how taxing it was for those of us in this fire department who live in the community and are sworn to protect. This is our home."

Giomi's life has been spent studying fire. For 25 years he's dedicated himself to the profession he loves.

But the Waterfall fire was different than any fire he's worked. Never in the history of Carson City has there been a fire as devastating.

Investigators have concluded someone didn't do a very good job extinguishing a campfire a half-mile above the waterfall in Kings Canyon. Embers ignited the bottom layer of thick underbrush. It could have been smoldering for some time as it grew toward the treeline, still hidden under inches of duff, said Greg Liddicoat, deputy state fire marshal.

The origin was not accessible by vehicle and in an area not frequented by many people. Investigators may never know who started it.

By 2:57 a.m. on July 14, when flames were visible to the city below, the fire's strength was still unknown. At daylight, two planes and a helicopter were working as hand crews began a series of unsuccessful attempts to reach the isolated area and cut fire lines.

"We should have been able to stop it, but every time we tried to put someone ahead of that fire, to attack that fire, something happened and they were driven back," Giomi said.

About 11:30 a.m., the earth weakened from the flames and sent boulders crashing into two firefighters from the Slide Mountain handcrew.

Giomi, who was commanding his men at the time from a cul-de-sac at the end of Kings Canyon Road, said the men were reported to have a possible broken back and fractured leg. With the fire growing by the minute, half a dozen Carson City firefighters climbed the steep, rocky terrain to attempt a rescue.

The rescue operation diverted the attention of commanders away from the fire.

Bucket operations were diverted toward cooling the perimeter near the rescue, limiting the amount of aerial support going to other areas on the fire, according to a report released by Waterfall Incident Board of Review tasked with investigating the loss of three fire vehicles.

As the rescue was going on, Giomi said, a crew was sent up Kings Canyon's dirt road to try again to get behind the fire. Once more, they were driven back by the fire's erratic behavior.

"The fire essentially started spotting over them on the road behind them. The firebrands were so numerous they couldn't attack them all," he said.

The canyon was acting like a funnel, Giomi said, sending the wind, filled with burning embers, gushing through it.

With the situation worsening, he began to send resources out of the cul-de-sac, by this time crowded with vehicles and people.

"I could tell it was going to come at us. I just didn't think it was coming at us that ferociously," he said. "It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life."

About 1 p.m. Northern Nevada's afternoon winds swooped over the western hills.

The trees, left parched from years of drought, burst into flames that washed down the mountain in a tsunami of fire and smoke. Retreating crews poured out of Kings Canyon's two-lane winding road.

"It moved like a bat out of hell through there."

As Giomi saw the exodus in his rearview mirror, one thought ran through his mind.

"Oh my gosh, we're not going to stop this."

That first day, 10 homes in Kings Canyon and one on Curry Street were lost. Three fire vehicles were destroyed.

Lyon County firefighter Kevin Kleinworth suffered injuries when he was forced to jump from his burning rig after stopping to allow a news truck to turn around.

Homeowner Doug Kelly sought refuge in his vehicle on a knoll above his home. With the air conditioner blasting, he estimated temperatures reached 380 degrees Fahrenheit.

KOLO television reporter John Tyson received burns as he got into his vehicle.

The men injured from the boulder were safe in an already-burned area on the rocky hillside.

For the next two days as the Waterfall fire consumed eight more homes in Timberline, every person who worked for the Carson City Fire Department and was in town was on duty. No one thought of going home, Giomi said.

"It's almost a feeling of disbelief. We should be able to stop this, but that fire was just so resistant to control and it just was not going to be stopped," he said." As firefighters, we sometimes have a feeling of invincibility. We do this all the time. We don't run away, we don't turn back and we're used to winning when we show up. When that doesn't happen, you feel responsible.

"We knew what was going to happen. We had everything in place to deal with it as best we could. With the fuel the way it was and the winds the way they were, there's nothing else we could have done.

"I guess the biggest myth and the hardest reality for us as firefighters is to realize that wherever the fire is - here, Oregon, Washington, San Diego - we don't control the fire. We have to look for opportunity. It's an odd feeling recovering from that."

n Contact reporter F.T. Norton at or 881-1213.


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