Fighting wildfires takes more than a village


It takes a village to fight a wildfire, and our village is the entire state of California.
In any major fire, firefighters may drive hundreds of miles to help, because an early mass response is the only way to keep fires from spreading madly and endangering communities. When firefighters from San Diego go to Napa to help fight a fire, they know that Napa firefighters will be by their side when a fire breaks out here.
“California has a very robust system of neighbor helping neighbor, called master mutual aid,” said CAL FIRE Division Chief Nick Schuler, who oversees operations in North San Diego County. “When an agency calls, neighboring agencies respond.”
This system of mutual aid was developed after the Laguna Fire burned 174,500 acres in San Diego County in 1970. The fire spread practically unchecked from Mount Laguna to Bonita, and afterward California’s fire services were severely criticized for lacking a coordinated effort to defend communities. The Laguna Fire remains one of the state’s largest and most destructive fires ever, with 382 structures destroyed.
Beginning in the 1970s the state took measures to form a command structure that could better coordinate response, communications, training and other issues, and continues to refine them. Today six incident management teams are on rotating call all year and respond to major incidents anywhere in the state when their turn comes up.
This command structure kicked into gear on Sept. 3, when a CAL FIRE incident management team consisting of Incident Commander Kevin Lawson, Operations Chief Schuler and Capt. Jon Heggie, a fire behavior analyst, all from San Diego County, traveled to Madera County to help direct efforts to fight the Mission Fire. This fire had a unified command structure with the U.S. Forest Service, based on the fire’s location in state and federal lands.
“We had engines there from the border of Mexico to Oregon State at that fire,” Schuler said. “We had 160 California National Guard firefighters trained to do hand crew work. We had six National Guard helicopters and a fleet of CAL FIRE helicopters and air tankers.”
This response may seem like an overreaction, considering that the Mission Fire was relatively small, at 1,035 acres. But the fire zone, in Sierra National Forest, is a tree mortality area littered with dead trees, the result of drought and beetle infestation. It is estimated that 146 trees are dying each day from drought and beetle infestation, and the dry trees could have fueled a monstrous fire that penetrated deeper into Sierra National Forest and Yosemite National Park, only a few miles away. Firefighters were in danger of falling trees day and night as they battled the blaze, and one engine was damaged by a falling tree, Schuler said.
Firefighters succeeded in checking the fire, and it was declared fully contained on Sept. 21, 18 days after it started.
San Diego agencies that responded to the fire included San Marcos, Carlsbad, Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe, Poway and Lakeside. CAL FIRE in San Diego sent 10 engines.
“Probably 20 engines in all responded from San Diego County,” Schuler said.
When fire crews and engines leave the area to fight fires up north, “CAL FIRE works closely with cooperating agencies to ensure that resources are available throughout the county,” Schuler said. CAL FIRE activates reserve engines and may cancel leave time to fill in for the firefighters who are gone. Local fire departments may do the same.
Autumn’s onset raises the stakes for wildfire in Southern California, as Santa Ana winds increase the fire danger.
CAL FIRE repositions crews and equipment closer to areas of potential fire, Schuler said, based on statewide fire activity and potential.
“We’re looking at predicted weather 72 to 96 hours in advance, and if we see a Santa Ana coming we shift our resources southward to reduce the reflex time for responses.”
And if a major fire were to break out here, we can count on firefighters from Northern California to help in the fight.
At mid-September, 5,350 fires were recorded in CAL FIRE’s response area, burning 230,186 acres. During the same period in 2016 there were 3,928 fires that burned 237,113 acres.