Crews left scene of lightning-caused fire Friday before it exploded into Lava Fire

MT. SHASTA, Ca.- The Lava Fire is now burning thousands of acres and triggering evacuation orders for many Siskiyou County communities.  But NBC5 News is learning firefighters had the fire under control on Friday, before it exploded.

Late night on Thursday June 24th, Shasta-Trinity National Forest crews quickly responded to four lightning-started fires.

“They worked all day through the 25th and by the evening there was no detectable threat,” explained Adrienne Freeman, information officer for Shasta-Trinity. But one of the fires that crews left Friday would restart. The smoke would be called in an hour later, and responding crews even thought they were going to a different fire.

It turned into the fast growing Lava Fire, which has since displaced several communities and burned thousands of acres of land.

“I apologize for that getting out, I do. I’ll take the heat for that. I’m the fire manager for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and I will own that,” apologized Todd Mack during a town hall with the community Monday night. Mack was responding to questions many other Siskiyou county residents have echoed – why did fire crews leave the scene?

According to both Mack and Freeman, their experts thought the fire was completely out.

“It got to a point where the expertise on the ground called it contained. We dumped 7,000 gallons of water on it. There was no smoke,” Mack explained on Monday.

Freeman says they followed the proper procedure and there was no detectable threat. The fire was set to be patrolled and re-visited, so an emerging threat would have been caught regardless. But she says if they put a crew member at every non-threatening fire, it would cut into other efforts.

“Every time we put someone on one fire for longer and longer with no detectable threat, that’s less ability to respond to other things,” she explained. She said the fire was in extremely difficult terrain, especially with the dry conditions. According to Freeman, the nature of lava flow terrain could have contributed to the re-start.

“Under lava flows, through lava tubes, and just in lava fields, its very rocky and there are lots of tiny spaces where heat can hide,” she said.

But she says they won’t know for sure until they do a full assessment, and that’s something they can’t do now with the fire actively burning.

“That’s what makes us among the best firefighters on earth… When we are done with this we will go back and look at what happened and determine how we need to respond differently.”

At the town hall, Mack said something like this isn’t ideal, but it’s not unusual.

“It happens sometimes, its not the intended outcome it’s not what we want. We’re all disappointed that this happened. But it happened,” he said.

Right now the fire is 17,591 acres and is 19% contained.

Last Friday, after the initial fire was first discovered, was the first time Shasta-Trinity National Forest posted about the Lava Fire. At the time it was 2 acres, and 50% contained.

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