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They are fighting California's biggest fire — in steep forest terrain with rattlesnakes, scorpions, poisonous plants

Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and Alene Tchekmedyian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

UKIAH, Calif. -- For Trey Rosenbalm and Ariana Altier, fighting the largest fire in California history takes more than just watching out for flames.

The Mendocino Complex fire is ravaging thick brush deep in the Mendocino National Forest, so getting close to the front lines to attack flames directly is almost impossible.

They hike several miles per day up steep slopes wearing hefty gear and carrying heavy bags of equipment on their backs. Then there's the wildlife they have to watch out for -- rattlesnakes, scorpions and poisonous plants.

"You don't know what your next step is, whether you could go into a ditch or loose brush," said Rosenbalm, a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service who like others is working 24-hour shifts every other day.

"You go to sleep tired, that's for sure," Altier said.

The remote location is a big reason why the stubborn Mendocino Complex -- made up of the Ranch and River fires flanking Clear Lake -- raced into the record books. When they exploded nearly two weeks ago above the lake, firefighters were faced with an urgent choice.

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Flames were threatening lakeside communities while also burning rapidly into forestland to the north and west. The fires were among many burning across California, so resources were tight. Crews focused on protecting communities, using bulldozers to cut fire lines above homes in a mission that was largely successful. As of Wednesday night, 116 homes had been lost and no one was killed, a sharp contrast from the destructive Carr fire to the north that consumed more than 1,000 homes and killed seven people.

But the Mendocino Complex fire rapidly moved into forest land, where it was difficult to place firefighters. There the flames burned through dry brush at an unprecedented rate.

"The fire was so unpredictable that it wasn't worth putting firefighters in the middle of the wilderness," said Steve Kaufman, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "There's no way to drive fire engines to the middle of the forest."

Kaufman and others said difficult-to-access terrain was a major factor in the unprecedented size of Mendocino Complex, which topped more than 300,000 acres as of Wednesday afternoon. Unchecked, the fire was able to push through rolling tree-covered hills, flat grassy land and rugged canyons.

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