As the threat of wildfires rises with California’s persistent drought, the all-volunteer members of the Montecito Emergency Response and Recovery Action Group continue to train to assist the Montecito Fire Protection District with rescue, prevention and recovery efforts.
Members of MERRAG, pronounced “mirage,” train year-round to perform light search and rescue, radio communications, personnel deployment and fireproofing methods recommended by the National Weather Service.
The group is in the midst of a membership drive to prepare for the summer fire season. Its next seminar, covering radio and van training, is at 10 a.m. Aug. 14 at 595 San Ysidro Road in Montecito.
Geri Ventura, administrative assistant for Montecito’s fire department and treasurer of MERRAG, said volunteers play a pivotal role in preventing loss of property during fire outbreaks and act as additional aid workers during disasters.
“We have three pipelines into the community that, if damaged, would seriously hamper a response from a national agency,” she told Noozhawk.
“Our community would be an island during a big enough disaster, so we need trained volunteers who can act as first responders.”
Eric Boldt, warning coordination specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the current drought has put an unprecedented amount of stress on local plant life that could act as kindling for fires.
With rainfall at record lows not seen since the 1800s, Boldt emphasized a continued need for volunteers.
“We need weather spotters because MERRAG helps us to coordinate local resources,” he said. “They give us the ground-truth to what's happening in the field.”
Two members are placed on call every month for MERRAG command and are responsible for assembling teams in the event of a disaster.
Five-year MERRAG volunteer Cate Wilkins, 60, is on call for the month of July. Wilkins had an opportunity to put her skills to the test when a neighbor's child gashed her nose running through a plate-glass door.
The child's mother was in shock at the sight of blood, but Wilkins was able to calm the mom and instruct a bystander to call 9-1-1.
“Folks freeze during critical moments in an emergency, at a time when the speed of your reaction could make a big difference in the outcome for your friends and family,” Wilkins said. “Knowing these skills has given me peace of mind that I’ll know what to do in a disaster.”
MERRAG personnel are generally asked to avoid entering situations that appear too dangerous, but are trained to know when conditions are safe enough to help. They’re even taught how to rescue survivors trapped under heavy objects by lifting at an angle.
“We take them out and have them rescue dummies trapped under concrete and other objects,” Ventura said. “We actually have 70-year-old members lifting dumpsters off of dummies, which is pretty impressive.”
Ventura said volunteers step forward in droves after a disaster, but she said the 2008 Tea Fire underscored the how much more effective volunteers can be when they’re trained beforehand.
Team members set up an emergency operations center and information kiosk on East Valley Road within 10 minutes of the fire being reported, she said. “That fire demonstrated how well trained volunteers coordinate with the fire district.”
As fires grow in frequency and ferocity, knowledgeable community members are less likely to become victims, NOAA Fire Specialist Dave Gomberg said.
“When people get involved they begin to fully realize the unique capacity for natural disasters that we have in California,” he said.
“We were seeing temperatures typical of August as early as June. When the public learns to interface with rescue professionals, they take threats like these more seriously.”
Members of MERRAG and other volunteer organizations have started patrolling local trails on red-flag warning days to educate hikers and look for suspicious activity when weather conditions have a high risk of fire.
The nonprofit MERRAG is funded by tax-deductible membership dues paid by volunteers. The group hosts a free training module on the second Thursday of each month, and nonmembers are invited to attend. Click here for more information about MERRAG.