Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mutual Aid: California Style

By: Lou Angeli

Poway, California (October 24, 2007) – As an East coast firefighter, it’s hard for me to fathom the size and scope of the firefighting operation in southern California. It’s even harder to accept that over 3,000 homes have been destroyed and thousands of others damaged. Hell, when we lose a single row home, we’re down on ourselves for weeks.

The wildfires here are intense, sweeping across tinder dry brush at speeds of 35 mph. Even small “spot” fires, ignited by flying brands, grow so quickly that they consume hundreds of acres in a matter of an hour or so.

The blazes that aren’t threatening homes are allowed to burn. Firefighting resources are better used in areas that officials refer to as the Wildland/Urban Intermix – that beautiful yet unpredictable place where man has chosen to live among the trees and animals.

That’s the dilemma here in San Diego County, and much of California, where homes, businesses, schools and churches blend into the hillsides and canyons. Like the vegetation that serves as the backdrop for these communities, structures are just another source of fuel when Mother Nature arrives in the form of a superfire.

Just East of the Escondido Freeway, Doug Haney, a firefighter assigned to a Central California Task Force, has converted his F-350 pick-up into a fire truck. Two colleagues join him: a 7-year veteran named Beth and a probationary fireman they both simply call “probie.” The trio has just loaded the black plastic pick-up bed with 500 feet of hose and nozzles that they’ve “borrowed” from a Poway fire station. Haney says that there aren’t enough engines or official vehicles to go around.

“We didn’t travel 300 miles to stand here in the parking lotand watch these homes burn,” the 20-year veteran complains as he tucks an axe and halligan under the hose.

Firefighters are resourceful by nature, and these three are no exception. Across the windshield of the blue/gray Ford, they’ve written “Firefighting Vehicle” in white shoe polish. In antcipation of a long day -- and night – they’ve loaded additional gas cans and a cooler filled with bottled water and snacks. Fuel for the truck – fuel for the crew. The makeshift firefighting machine has no pumps, no radios or GPS – just a few basic tools that firefighters have been using for hundreds of years.

As senior man, and the owner of the pick-up, Haney chooses where to respond by looking to the sky. The crew follows dark, black smoke because they’ve been trained to recognize that shade and color as burning hydrocarbons -- the types of things that one might find in homes.

Driving up the winding Bernardo Trails Drive, an area that has been officially evacuated, the crew is amazed to see how many residents have remained behind.

“Not enough firefighters – not enough cops!” Haney chomps from behind his unlit cigar.

As they ascend the two lane rural road, the smoke begins to thicken and visibility decreases significantly. Haney drops his speed from 50 mph to a safer rate of 20. The two other firefighters relax their tight grip on the dash. The probie touches the button to lower the passenger side window only to be greeted with a dose of 110-degree air.

"That's why we call him proble!" Beth jokes.

A few clicks down the road the rag tag engine company encounters an OES Strike Force whose members are taking a brutal beating. They are working to hold back a wall of flames that is rapidly moving toward a sub-division of high value homes. In a minute or so, the team leader will be forced to make a decision that is contrary to a firefighter's mindest -- and that is to abandon the position.

Haney edges slowly past a Class-3, wildland pumper as a red-helmeted Captain motions for the crew to proceed. Haney quickly sizes-up the situation and decides to make a stand on the downwind side of the sub-division. Not that downwind actually exists during a Santa Ana blow.

Firebrands rain down on the properties, igniting shrubs and fences, which generate enough radiant heat to light up the wooden siding. The flames quickly snake their way upward to the wood shake shingles where the wind-whipped fire instantly torches roofs -- then consumes the entire home from the top down.

The trio scan both sides of the lane for a viable structure – a house with limited exposed wood.
Beth points out a stone and stucco house covered by a terra cotta roof. Haney nods and guides the truck into the driveway. Even though the flames are marching up the canyon behind the home, the senior firefighter feels confident.

“I think we can make a save here,” Haney shouts over the roar. “Let’s just hope the hydrants don’t come up dry.”

With his cigar safely tucked away in the “firetruck,” Doug Haney dons his helmet, pulls down a yellow Nomex collar that wraps his face, and lowers his goggles to cover his irritated eyes. The others follow suit.

The probie grabs a hydrant wrench and the female end of the inch and a half, then hustles to a hydrant across the lane. With drill-like accuracy, he connects the hose and spins open the valve. In less than 30 seconds Haney is aiming the water stream toward burning shrubbery and trees behind the home. Beth is flowing a second line that she directs toward the home, hosing down anything that might surrender to the radiant heat. And it’s hot -- so hot that you can bake a potato in your jacket pocket.

Using a spade from the garden shed, the probie races around the home creating mini firebreaks, separating burning fuels from the structure itself. Along the way, he positions a garden hose between two decorative stones, locks it to the “on” position and aims the piddle stream at the wooden front door.

There’s no pump to maintain the nozzle's needed water pressure of 75 psi, so the two hosemen do the best with what they’ve got. Using only hydrant pressure, Haney and his female colleague must position themselves physically closer to the fire in order for their water streams to be effective.

Since exiting the air conditioned truck, the body core temperature of these firefighters has risen from normal – to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. So from time to time, Doug and Beth turn their hoses on one another to cool the super-heated air, which easily penetrates their lightweight, wildland firefighting gear.

In less than the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, the ordeal is over. The wildfire has moved through the neighborhood consuming everything in its path – that is with the exception of the two-story gray stone at the end of the cul-de-sac off Bernardo Trails Drive.

“Imagine what we could have done with a real fire truck.” Beth announces to no one in particular.

The probie reaches into the cooler only to find that the bottled water is warm, and the ice melted. He slips the plastic bottles in Doug and Beth's butt pockets, as they "mop up"– cooling down hotspots that may rekindle. The ground is still extremely hot, and you can feel it through insulated leather boots.

The same scenario is being played out by other firefighting teams working in dozens of communities throughout San Diego County. But what took place here, off Bernardo Trails Drive, is a testimony to the bravery and dedication of three California firefighters, working hundreds of miles from their first alarm district in the true spirit of mutual aid.



Bill in SD said...

Great story - thanks to firefighters with the 'can do' attitude, many homes were saved. My friends were not so lucky - the house with the shake roof next door to them *fell* into their home as it collapsed.

The wind was strong and unpredicatable. The worst we have seen in a long time.

It is Bernardo Trails Drive, by the way. This may help with searching out your blog.


Lou Angeli said...

Bill -- thanks for the correction. If you'll allow me, I'll chalk it up to the smoke conditions. Lou