34 years apart, Acorn and Tamarack fires share controversy over management

NV Energy linemen string wire just north of Holbrook Junction after a section of power poles and line was destroyed in the Tamarack Fire.

NV Energy linemen string wire just north of Holbrook Junction after a section of power poles and line was destroyed in the Tamarack Fire.

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Today marks 34 years since the Acorn Fire claimed two-dozen homes in Woodfords Canyon and Fredericksburg.

Like the Tamarack Fire that is smoldering on around 106 square miles stretching 20 miles from the Sierra to the Pine Nuts, the initial response to the Acorn Fire became controversial.

At only 6,550 acres, the Acorn Fire consumed less than a tenth of the forest that the Tamarack Fire has destroyed over the past two weeks.

According to The Record-Courier, the Acorn Fire reportedly did $5 million in damage, which would translate into almost $12 million in today’s dollars.

The Tamarack Fire is up to $18 million and will likely cost far more when the loss of structures is factored in.

In a story marking the 20th anniversary of the July 29, 1987, fire, Alpine County writer Nancy C. Thornburg wrote the fire started in Acorn Canyon north of Crystal Springs.

“Forest Service personnel called it a ‘textbook fire’ and advised the Alpine County volunteers to stand down,” she wrote.

The fire remained at a quarter-acre for about two hours when the Zephyr came up and sent it down the mountain, escaping firefighters who were working on it. By 6:30 p.m. that day, it was at 2,000 acres and growing.

By the time it was done the next day, it had consumed 6,550 acres, destroyed two-dozen homes and damaged another 56.

When Thornburg wrote about the Acorn Fire, she observed that fuel conditions in Alpine County were very similar to the 1980s.

Residents at the time accused the Forest Service of sending volunteers home before the fire was extinguished.

There has also been criticism of the Forest Service connected to the Tamarack Fire, which smoldered for a dozen days before it exploded on July 16.

First reported on July 4 as a single-tree fire, the Tamarack Fire was one of four fires listed on the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch’s wild web as reported on Independence Day. All four fires were the result of electrical storms that hammered the Central Sierra over the previous days.

At the time the Tamarack Fire was reported, the lighting-sparked East Fork Fire had grown to 1,100 acres and firefighters had a line around a third of it. The thunderstorm that helped douse the East Fork Fire also brought the lightning that would set the Tamarack Fire. By July 5, the East Fork had stopped smoking entirely.

The East Fork was not the only good size fire burning in Alpine County.

Just 10 miles up the mountain from where the Tamarack Fire was smoldering in the neighboring Stanislaus National Forest another fire had been burning the entire time.

The Henry fire was started by lightning on June 25, and firefighters had been managing it for forest health for more than a month before it was fully contained on Tuesday.

But in the week leading up to the Tamarack’s Fire rapid expansion, the Henry Fire went from 300 acres to 1,000 acres, prompting firefighters to begin to cut a line around the blaze.

State legislators in both California and Nevada have asked how the Forest Service could let a single tree fire smolder for so long without extinguishing it.

Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Gardnerville, told a Reno television station that he planned to ask Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford to file a lawsuit against the Forest Service over the issue.

While the Acorn Fire only burned for three days, the lawsuit that resulted wasn’t settled until 1998, more than a decade later.

The fire victims settled their claims of the Forest Service was negligent in extinguishing the blaze for $1.7 million.

In an Associated Press story published by The Record-Courier in 1998 about the settlement, one of the attorneys said the lawsuit’s biggest accomplishment was how fire agencies handle wildfires.

“They don’t mess around,” Reno attorney Thomas Drendel said. “They jump on them.”


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