With multiple fires at Vandenberg Air Force Base in the past 10 days, commanders have beefed up security at the installation and confirmed some damage occurred but remained mum about specifics.
Col. Chris Moss, 30th Space Wing commander, held a town hall meeting for residents of the base housing Tuesday night to provide information and answer questions about the activity on the 99,000-acre installation.
The flurry of fires began with the 12,700 acre Canyon Fire on South Base Sept. 17, followed by the Washington Fire, which burned more than 200 acres.
Smaller fires included the Airfield Fire, Oak Canyon Fire and Corral Fire.
“This really was a fire of historic proportions for Vandenberg,” Moss said, estimating the base last saw a blaze similar to the Canyon Fire 40 years ago.
The team of civilians and military members did “a fantastic job making sure that we were all safe, and they did an unbelievable job preserving most of the nationally critically infrastructure,” Moss said.
“We did take some damage, but we’ll be able to work through that. It’s beyond a doubt that things could have been much much worse,” he added.
Moss indirectly touched on speculation the fires were intentionally set, noting investigations are underway into the cause of each one.
“Regardless of what that investigation’s going to tell us, here’s what I know: We have had five fires on the the base, and so out of an abundance of caution, we are increasing some security measures around the base,” he said. “You may have seen some of those already today in place and you’re likely to see more of those over the next few days.
“Those are not the result of any particular piece of information. I’m just doing that out of an abundance of caution,” Moss added.
Investigations can take time due to the hazard of being in a burn area and challenge of seeking clues from a site doused with water and run over with equipment in the normal process of extinguishing blazes.
“Fires on Vandenberg are actually not that uncommon,” Moss said. “Believe it or not, we do get them from time to time. That is the result of being in the middle of a 15-year drought, that is the result of having a lot of unburned fuel on the base, that’s the result of having older infrastructure and also the high winds we get here on a regular basis.”
“The frequency and size of the fires we’ve had this past week is unusual, and that’s what make this different,” he said. “But I’m not from that point jumping to any particular conclusion.”
With the fires contained, Vandenberg is moving from the response phase into the recovery phase, Moss said.
Crews will assess damage, prioritize the needed repairs and then set up a plan to methodically complete the repairs.
“That’s going to be a fairly lengthy process,” Moss said. “There’s lots to do …”
A new launch date for the delayed Atlas V rocket and its WorldView-4 satellite remains up in the air until the assessment is completed, Moss said.
“We have an organization called a Recovery Working Group that has begun the process of surveying each facility and each piece of instrumentation to determine what damage it might have suffered in the fire,” Moss said. “Until we complete that initial survey of equipment, we won’t be able to determine a launch date.”
Rolling power outages should be expected as crews repair damaged utility lines, he told Vandenberg personnel.
Despite reports of damaged launch support equipment, Moss remained mum about specific losses or repairs.
He reminded people to remain out of the burn area for safety reasons and to avoid interfering with those involved in the recovery effort.
Smoldering from the burn areas may continue for a few days, he said.
He told Vandenberg personnel to monitor the Vandenberg website for updates.
However, on the night the Canyon Fire started, Vandenberg public affairs officials did not confirm the fire’s existence — even as a large plume of smoke was visible — for at least five hours, and remained consistently behind on releasing information for many days.
Last week, residents of La Salle Stables expressed concern about the lack of information on the fire’s progress, with some horse owners staying overnight at the site to monitor flames days after the fire’s start. Moss said he was not aware of those concerns.
Moss confirmed the information was filtered through several levels of approval before being released after base leaders activated the emergency operations center and crisis action team.
Some residents expressed concern about evacuation orders with the Washington Fire, as they could not access housing before the misinformation was resolved and they were allowed to enter the installation.
One resident took issue with officials’ efforts to downplay the fire and say residents weren’t in danger.
“What I was trying to do with the statement saying you weren’t in danger is we had people watching where the fire was, watching where the wind was pushing it, and we felt there was no opportunity that fire was going to present a danger to the housing area,” he said.