Modoc Inferno


Modoc Complex Map, layered with our GPS tracking data (blue dots) showing where our adventure led. (USFS/Ryan Niemi)

The morning of July 30, 2017 the Fire Management team has reported that the fires of the Modoc July Complex have grown to 39,623 acres with 40% containment. I can attest that this is one intense fire, as last night [July 29, 2017], a group of adventuring journalists, photographers and filmmakers: Joe Spendolini, Jason McMurry, Ryan Niemi, and myself Brian Gailey, found our way to the front lines of the Steele Fire of the Modoc July Complex and ended up in the heart of the blaze.

About two hours before sunset, we began our adventure from Klamath Falls. OR, with the hope shooting parts of the Modoc July Complex fire in the Modoc National Forest, CA. We had hoped to work from an abandoned AT&T Long Distance tower on Brady Butte in southeastern Klamath County. Upon our arrival, we found the tower and the butte had good views of the billowing smoke but was not a good vantage point for the fire.  We pressed on for better opportunities.

Driving another 15-20 minutes we happened upon on a clearing where we found some trees burning in the distance. We set here for approx 30 minutes watching the sun set, shooting images and capturing footage. Shortly after our arrival, several of the US Forest Service Hotshot Crew trucks began passing by as they were leaving the fire.  

Smoke billows over Willow Valley Road in Modoc County, CA. (July 29, 2017)

Fire and smoke grow inside to 39,000 acres in the Modoc July Complex. (July 29, 2017)

Fire and smoke grow inside to 39,000 acres in the Modoc July Complex. (July 29, 2017)

We proceeded down the road about a half mile and found a line of CalFire trucks but no crew was visible. We worked at this location for about 20 more minutes before pressing on. We then came to an area that had burned earlier in the day. The grasses and brush were charred and smoldering, the rocks were still warm to the touch and lone juniper trees were burning from the inside out.

Pressing on, flaming piles of wood and debris were on fire all around us on all sides of the vehicle. We passed flatbed semi-trucks, then a Caterpillar bulldozer.  The red glow of the main fire was still visible ahead. Suddenly, the wind shifted and the smoke was getting thicker in our direction of travel.  We momentarily stopped, asking one another if we should continue or head home.  Press on!

I noticed that the forest was changing, gone were the grasses and junipers and present were tall Ponderosa Pines. This stand of pines was also engulfed in fire. One hundred foot tall pine tree trunks were burning, but not all of trees were on fire. It was as if, Mother Nature was being selective as to which trees she would burn and which would not. We came to and crossed a one lane bridge at Willow Creek. The dirt cinder road we had been following, climbed a steep grade and veered right into a large grassy meadow.

On this large open meadow, we could see a wall of fire a quarter mile wide with flames 20’ tall. The flames were at a safe distance from the road and too far to photograph well, we moved on toward the red glow. Soon we crossed Rock Creek, which was dry and burning and entered into another grove of burning pine trees.  Some were burning on the outside, others burning right in the middle of the tree, but again, not all trees were burning.

Less than a mile further up the road, the glow disappeared as we were driving into the heart of the fire. The fire was low on the ground, burning some trees, brush and grasses, but had not entered into the tree canopy.

Remnants of a log burn inside the heart of the Steele Fire, Modoc County, CA. (July 29, 2017)

Steel Fire rages inside the Modoc July Complex totaling 36,623 acres in Northern California. (July 29, 2017)

Here we stopped, got out and began capturing the inferno all around us. The ground was hot to the touch with some stones so hot they would burn if touched by skin. Ash rained down from the sky and the smoke was dark thick, breathing was difficult. We could hear the crackling of burning the wood and the branches snap and fall to the ground. We even heard one of the tall pine trees succumb to the fire and fall in the distance.  The fire was bright in the dark of night, providing enough light that video recording was possible by Ryan’s DJI Osmo.

Inside the Steele Fire of the Modoc July Complex. Modoc County, California (7/29/2017)

Fearful that the winds might kick up and ignite the tree canopy, we stayed for less than 20 minutes. Joe, who was driving, turned the truck around and we began our trip out of the fire. We carried photography gear on our laps at the ready, just in case we had to stop abruptly and need a quick image.

After leaving the fire area, we came across the USFS Hotshot trucks seen earlier. They were backed into a clearing off the side of the road, where the undoubtedly exhausted fire crews had pitched a small tent city to rest and sleep before going back to work the next day.  We all felt bad for driving by so late [about midnight] and hoped that our vehicles did not wake the crew.

Modoc July Complex as seen from the top of Stukel Mountain. (July 28, 2017).

Back in Oregon, our final stop was outside Willow Valley Campground where we stowed the remainder of the camera gear, stretched our bodies and admired the fire glow with the stars and milky way overhead. Returning home, we all smelled like a campfire. We laughed and agreed that all our wives would hate the smell and would require each of us to shower before bed.

Please be aware, we all were out shooting as a media crew on behalf of Klamath Online, a Facebook resident news site created and managed by Joe Spendolini. I highly recommend that you stay away from these fires and allow the expert firefighters to do their job.  It is ok to observe from a distance, but do not enter the fire zone.  It is dangerous for the crews working the blaze and our crew reporting the disaster.

This was a very dangerous situation, please stay away from the Modoc July Complex or any other wildfire, and enjoy them from the safety and comfort of your home through media footage.