NEAR ETNA, Cal. – Danny Breuklander winds his ATV up the logging roads near Mill Creek. The lone member of the Texas Canyon Hotshots keeps an eye up to the sky and an ear on the radio.
The rest of his team is further up the hill hoping for a helicopter drop. It’s up to Breuklander to coordinate it, as they try to stall the increasingly restless flames.
“Once the hillside starts heating up, we’re aware that it could make some significant runs to the top,” said Breuklander.
The volatile conditions are forcing crews into a two-front standoff, one in the lower gully of Mill Creek and the other on the high ridgeline between the creek and the nearby Quartz Valley.
The homes in the valley are already under an evacuation advisory. Depending on how the standoff goes, that could change very quickly.
“We’ve got certain trigger points in place that if the fire crosses Mill Creek or reaches a certain ridgetop, we’re going to have to institute mandatory evacuations or possibly widen the advisory,” said Joe Zwierzchowski, an Information Officer on the July Complex.
Zwierzchowski says the next 24 hours will be the most important of this firefight — a chance to prevent evacuations and a chance to avoid a long-drawn out fight with already strained resources.
After morning briefing Wednesday, crews were made aware of the game plan and given a sense of what senior officials call “cautious optimism” for the fight ahead.
But firefighters say too much confidence is a luxury they can’t afford.
“When you think it’s another day or you think you can put your guard down is when you get in deep trouble,” said Breuklander.
The Log Fire and Whites Fire are currently the highest priority burns in the July Complex. The two are a combined 8,108 acres. They have already prompted evacuation orders in the Music Creek, South Russian Creek, and Rainbow Mine areas; as well as evacuation advisories along the Quartz Valley Road.