Photo: John Locher / Associated Press
A firefighter died in the line of duty while battling California’s biggest wildfire, state officials announced Monday, the same day that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke toured another fire site and said the secret to the state’s horrific fire problem is better forest management.
The firefighter’s name was not released, but state fire officials said he was from Utah, was injured battling the Mendocino Complex blaze on Monday and was rushed to a hospital, where he died. He became the first person killed in the complex north of Clear Lake, which has burned 349,890 acres in Colusa, Mendocino and Lake counties and is the largest fire in California history.
The death marked the sixth firefighter killed in California wildfires this year.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and U.S. Forest Service commanders said in a statement Monday that they “are deeply saddened to report the death.”
“Fact finding on the accident is ongoing and notification of the next of kin is in progress,” the statement Monday night said. “More information will be released as it becomes available.”
The Mendocino Complex has destroyed 146 homes and damaged 118 other structures. The complex is composed of the River Fire, which is fully contained at 48,920 acres, and the 300,970-acre Ranch Fire that is 59 percent contained. The firefighter who died was on the lines of the Ranch Fire, officials said.
The massive fire is part of an unprecedented series of large, deadly and destructive fires that have raged through California over the past month, exposing astonished crews to fire behavior they say they have rarely seen, including pyro-cumulus clouds reaching into the stratosphere and powerful fire tornadoes.
Among the other fires burning Monday:
• The Carr Fire, which has burned more than 200,000 acres, became California’s sixth most destructive wildfire. It has killed eight people, including three firefighters and a great grandmother and her two great grandchildren, in addition to destroying 1,599 structures. The inferno is 63 percent contained.
The wildfire that’s been burning in Shasta County for 21 days barely grew overnight, yet officials said Monday they are still unable to project when the blaze will be fully contained. The northern part of the fire remains the most volatile, making a full containment date tough to pin down, said Charles Kuniyoshi, a Cal Fire spokesman.
• The Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park remained steady at 96,457 acres and was 86 percent contained. Yosemite National Park officials planned to reopen the valley to the public Tuesday, nearly three weeks after the fire forced its shutdown. Rangers said services in the valley would remain limited.
On Monday, the Wawona area and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias reopened to visitors. Air quality in the area was gradually improving, with conditions listed as “moderate” in the Mariposa, Hodgdon Meadow and Lee Vining areas, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
• The Holy Fire has burned 22,986 acres in Orange and Riverside counties and was 59 percent contained. Nearly 1,400 firefighters are battling it.
Since the wildfire season began this year, 11 people have died due to the wildfires, which have blanketed the skies with smoke.
As thousands of exhausted firefighters battled the flames, which most experts blame, at least partly, on a warming climate, Zinke on Monday called for thinning California’s forests and retrieving whatever lumber could be salvaged from burned areas.
The suggestion was blasted by critics as a shameless invitation for more logging. The remarks came in the wake of concern among state foresters that the state’s woodlands have become too dense with brush and trees, and are supercharging fires.
“There’s so much dead and dying timber,” Zinke said in an interview with Sacramento television station KCRA during a visit with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to survey the damage from the Carr Fire. “It’s just a time bomb. … We have to go back to actively managing our forests.”
In a social media post after visiting the Carr Fire area, Zinke wrote: “I have no words that describe the loss and devastation. I’ve been to a lot of fires and this is just something else. We are here for you.”
While forestry experts agree that California’s overgrown wildlands are intensifying fire activity, many questioned the motives behind his remarks as he downplayed global warming as a factor in recent fires and emphasized the need for commercial timber production.
“Make no mistake, he’s not proposing to thin small trees and shrubs,” said Chad Hanson, research ecologist for the John Muir Project, a group that’s been critical of timber production in California’s forests. “He’s talking about intensive commercial logging projects.”
Republicans in Congress, with the support from the Trump administration, have been pushing for changes in federal environmental policy that would reduce the level of review required for timber operations on public lands. Their latest proposal is being debated for inclusion in the Farm Bill. The goal, they say, is to reduce fire risk.
Last week, President Trump tweeted that environmental laws were exacerbating California’s fires by keeping water from firefighters and leaving too much explosive vegetation in forests. Fire officials have said water shortages are not a problem.
Zinke said Monday that the president is right, at least on the forest issue.
Zinke also was critical of environmentalists who have sued to stop logging projects in California.
“America is better than letting these radical groups control the dialogue,” he said. “Extreme environmentalists have shut down public access. They talk about habitat, and yet they are willing to burn it up.”
Zinke acknowledged that temperatures were rising and that the fire season is getting longer, but he said that had little to do with the extreme fire behavior.
Critics took issue with the Cabinet members using California’s wildfires to promote their forest agenda.
“For the Trump administration to exploit these recent human tragedies to try to roll back environmental laws and enrich their timber allies is incredibly wrong,” Hanson said.
Peter Fimrite, Sarah Ravani , Steve Rubenstein and Kurtis Alexander are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org