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Tuesday, January 22 , 2019, 1:37 am | Fair 51º


Ron Fink: Fire Season Means Multiple Firefighter Deployments

The recent Alamo Fire a little east of Santa Maria, and the Whittier Fire in the hills overlooking Santa Barbara remind us the healthy winter rains following a prolonged draught means a busy fire season for all California firefighters.

Starting relatively small and manageable, the two fires grew into major conflagrations due to weather, tons of dead plant material and the remote terrain.

Wildland firefighters' two worst enemies are high heat and the wind, AKA the weather. When these two elements combine with a high fuel load and difficult terrain fires get real big real fast and last for days, sometimes weeks.

During what are known in the trade as campaign fires, the safety of the thousands of men and women on the line is paramount.  The work is hard, the tools sharp, and there are always more uphills than downhills in the terrain.

Large encampments are created instantly to provide some level of comfort during rest periods, these have showers, cooking, medical, resupply, planning and management areas and, most important, sleeping areas outside the smoky conditions.

Some crews can be seen at local motels. These are on preplanned rest breaks after many hours on the fire line.

However, some firefighters in remote areas of a fire must establish their own small camps and maintain a watch so the fire doesn’t overrun them.

These small camps are supplied with food and water by helicopter. After a few days on the line, these crews are rotated out for needed rest, hot meals and a shower.

The smoke clouds, which can be seen for miles, are full of burning material he wind pushes into unburned areas.

All that ash you see in your yards and on your cars was once burning and it is always a worry to fire managers as they watch for spot fires downwind of the main fire.

Firefighting today has become much more of a regional operation than a few years ago. Resources — that’s equipment, supplies and staffing — are drawn from faraway places to deal with the threat.

It is not uncommon to see fire crews from eastern and northern states alongside our local crews; management teams also come from multiple agencies.

How do they all get along?

Well there is a national standard for wildland fire training for all positions, so a person from Idaho has the same level of skill and training as someone from Lompoc in the same position.

That’s the only way the demand for large numbers of qualified firefighters can be met quickly.

How do they get the needed experience?

First there are classroom strategy sessions where the lessons learned from previous fires are stressed. Then there is the on-the-job practical training to demonstrate you can handle the increased responsibility during actual fires.

Some in Lompoc complain “firefighters are always at the market.” But the firefighters you see at the market may be called to travel for hours to a large fire in another area, then spend 12-24 hours on the fire line.

For example, at about midnight on July 26, 2015, the Lompoc City Fire Department received just such a request to support a five-engine strike team deployment to wildland fire 400 miles away near Grass Valley.

This crew had been on duty since 8 a.m. the previous day and had responded to several incidents prior to this response.

They arrived on scene at the Lowell Incident at about 11 a.m. July 26 and immediately were assigned to a one-mile-long burnout operation. These operations are used to clear vegetation in front of an approaching fire as a control method.

The team was relieved on the line and sent to the fire camp at about 8 a.m. July 27 some 48 hours after they reported for duty in Lompoc.

This is a relatively common example of what happens to firefighters all over the region during fire season.

There's much concern that firefighters earn too much money and that maybe we should pare back both wages and benefits.

I challenge anyone who complains we pay these people too much to spend one shift on the fire line beside the men and women who chose to protect us. You may have a different opinion when you finally get back to fire camp.

In today’s world, firefighters deploy just like the military; the only difference is they deploy in the United States to protect the homeland.

Give this commentary some thought as you say “firefighters are always at the market.”

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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