CACHE CREEK NATIONAL PARK, Calif. - Burning on one side of Northern California’s Cache Creek is the Rocky Fire, the Golden State’s largest wildfire so far this year.
On the river’s other side are the brave people who are going to kill it.
In between is the California Army National Guard’s 132nd Multirole Bridge Company, which is serving a vital role in the ongoing fight. The unit, from Redding, California, opened a pathway for the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to contain the blaze that had consumed nearly 70,000 acres in just over a week. The Multirole Bridge Company built a temporary pontoon bridge, roughly 120 feet long, allowing CAL FIRE vehicles easier and quicker access to the Rocky Fire.
“The main thing is quickness,” said Jeremy Salizzoni, a CAL FIRE captain and military liaison. “This bridge gives us faster access to the fire. We can get our bulldozers, equipment and people up there to fight it.”
According to 132nd company commander Capt. Jesse Bulaong, the bridge, constructed by a 30-member special team, consists of four pontoons — two ramps and two platforms — that connect once opened in water. The pontoons arrived on trucks that drove onto the riverbank and lowered them to the river by a crane.
“It’s a real mission, but it’s like training for us. We go out all the time and build a bridge,” Bulaong said.
The Rocky Fire spanned three counties in its first few days. CAL FIRE crews, attempting to maneuver around the fire, had to divert to other routes that often took longer, Salizzoni explained. The temporary floating bridge cuts travel time, putting fire crews in places they weren’t able to get to previously, he said.
“I’m just sad we didn’t think about this sooner,” Salizzoni added. “A California National Guard group always has a skill we can use to fight fires.”
The temporary structure floats adjacent to a concrete bridge that was deemed “zero tons,” according to Steve Sahs, a California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) senior bridge engineer/inspector. That means it’s passable for normal vehicles, but big, heavy equipment, such as fire trucks and bulldozers, aren’t allowed over it, Sahs explained.
Sahs said California has about 24,000 bridges. This bridge is one of about 10 in the Cache Creek National Park.
“This has been closed since 2009 due to scour issues,” he said, noting the bridge was built in 1930 and had deteriorated significantly. “You can see it’s old because it’s made with square re-bars.” Square rebar is no longer used in construction.
The pontoon bridge across the Cache Creek is an improvement over the old cement bridge.
“They asked if our bridge can hold anything. We asked if they have anything heavier than an Abrams tank,” said Sgt. Ben Ritchie, from the 132nd. “They said, well, we got nothing to worry about.”
Twenty-four residences and 26 outbuildings were destroyed, and roughly 40,000 acres burned, in the Rocky Fire’s first five days. CAL FIRE declared it five percent contained over that time. The Rocky Fire was up to nearly 70,000 acres burned and 70 percent contained at day 11, per CAL FIRE’s website.
The 132nd worked into darkness finalizing their bridge after experiencing a few setbacks. The water level was apparently lower than when an advanced team checked the site previously, and the narrow access road leading to the riverbank served to be a slight problem for the unit’s bulky vehicles.
“The big thing was we didn’t have enough water to float the pieces to put them together. When we did a [reconnaissance mission], the water was higher,” Sgt. 1st Class Ben Nievera, noncommissioned officer in charge, said. “We had to build around that. We weren’t going to say we can’t do this. Giving up was not an option.”
Once the bridge was in place, CAL FIRE engineers landscaped the bridge’s edges to make it passable.
The Rocky Fire was one of nearly two dozen wildfires burning in California in the same timeframe. It is the largest, to date, amongst California’s 3,000-plus fires so far in 2015, per CAL FIRE’s information.
The 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County remains California’s largest wildfire, according to CAL FIRE. It consumed more than 270,000 acres, destroying nearly 3,000 structures and caused 15 deaths.