Sunday the 20th anniversary of Acorn fire

Almost 20 years ago ...

Fire danger had been extreme for five days prior to ignition. On July 29, 1987, at about 11:30 a.m. a thin wisp of smoke in Woodfords Canyon was spotted and reported. The fire was located in Acorn Canyon north of Crystal Springs. Cause of the fire was never determined but the U.S. Forest Service stated that it was man-caused.

Forest service personnel called it a "textbook fire" and advised the Alpine volunteers to stand down.

The fire burned in duff and litter 6-9 inches deep and surrounded by scattered manzanita, mahogany, chinquapin, Jeffrey pine and white fir. Around 12:45 p.m. the fire was about 1/4 acre, and it remained small until about 1:30 p.m. when the usual afternoon down-canyon winds came up at about 25 miles per hour.

Around 2:15 p.m. the blaze escaped initial attack and started spotting far ahead of the main fire. Winds continued to increase in intensity, up to 50 mph, and the fire crossed Highway 88 and formed two heads: one moving northeast toward Mesa Vista and the other toward Crystal Springs, the Woodfords Inn area, Alpine Village, and north and west of Upper Manzanita Lane.

At 3 p.m. Alpine Village residents were warned of possible evacuation, and at 4 p.m. the evacuation took place as the fire moved in. By 4:30 p.m. it had burned about 500 acres and by 6:30 it was about 2,000 acres and still growing. The major advance occurred in a matter of six hours.

"Eyewitness accounts report flame lengths from 60 to 100 feet, fire whirls, houses bursting into flames, fire-generated winds of 50 mph, and blinding smoke - literally a fire storm of awesome proportions." (Bjornsen Report, Oct. 1987)

By dawn July 30, the threat to life and property had largely passed.

The fire was basically stopped in its northeasterly direction when it ran out of fuel in the area where the Fredericksburg fire had started the previous year. North and west of the Upper Manzanita Lane area it was stopped by a combination of a bulldozer-cut fire line and an area of controlled burn which had happened the previous year and which reduced fuels in the burn area.

All together it burned 6,550 acres, destroyed 24 homes (estimated to be about one quarter of the homes in that area at that time), and damaged another 56 buildings. There was no loss of life and no serious injury.

Resources included many agencies and fire departments through mutual aid. There were about 1,500 firefighters, six borate bombers, eight dozers and several helicopters.

About two weeks later many wildland fires raged throughout California and the west. Had the Acorn occurred then, there would have been far fewer mutual aid resources available.

The U.S. Forest Service conducted an internal investigation following the Acorn and determined that their crews had not made any serious errors. The county commissioned an independent analysis by R.L. Bjornsen of FMA International out of Boise.

This report, in part, stated that "Fire danger buildup, incomplete intelligence on burning conditions, and lack of full commitment of planned resources contributed to the fire escaping initial attack." It went on to say, "Access, readily available water, and non-fire safe prevention measures contributed to the loss of structures."

Some recommendations from this report were implemented by the county. Many have not been. This fire resulted in prolonged litigation brought by victims who had lost homes and other property together with insurance companies which had paid claims.

The litigation was based on the allegation that the U.S. Forest Service had been negligent in its initial attack. Historically, the courts had taken the position that firefighters should not be held liable for negligence because, of necessity, they made very difficult decisions under very stressful conditions and that it was unfair of others to look back and claim that things should have been done differently. So the court directed that first the plaintiffs must prove that the forest service was, in fact, negligent. It took about five years but they did prove to the court that there was negligence. After about five more years of court involvement, the plaintiffs won their case.

And, it appears to me, from observation, at this point in time the forest service changed their initial attack strategies on wildland fires to be much more aggressive.

This had been part of the problem during all these fires of the 1980s (the Fredericksburg and both Indian Creek fires). But at the same time it must be pointed out that on hot, windy summer and fall days in eastern Alpine, once a wildland fire gets going it is extremely difficult to contain and extinguish. It will most likely be controlled and contained either when it runs out of fuel or when the weather or wind change. Fuels in the Markleeville and Woodfords areas now are much like they were in the 1980s. In Woodfords and Markleeville there are more trees and more ladder fuels in the form of grasses and brush. In the Mesa Vista and Upper Manzanita Lane areas the brush is probably about the same as it was in the 1980s. And there are many, many more homes in all these areas than there were in the '80s.

A copy of the Bjornsen report and other information about the Acorn fire, including newspaper articles, are available in the library in Markleeville


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