If our local firefighters weren’t already heroes in your mind, you may be impressed to hear they provided manpower to battle the recent “Woolsey Fire” in Malibu. And what’s perhaps equally significant is their reaction when you ask about the dramatic scope of that blaze and the massive “Camp Fire” in Paradise, California.
They say it’s just business as usual.
“We support the incident in any way we can,” said Capt. Paul Popp of Fire Station 132, a 20-year veteran of the department, whose “structure defense” engines were sent out to save homes.
When fires break out, like the recent California blazes, the fire captains institute “telephone standby,” which puts personnel on notice, to get all hands on deck. Engineer Tony Carcioppolo was at Fire Station 132 for 12 consecutive days, because some of his staff were sent to the Woolsey Fire. He had to cover for Capt. Popp and the strike team, who went to Malibu, where they did “mop up” duty and patrolled for hot spots.
“We have engines in reserve throughout the county,” Carcioppolo said. “Some of the firefighters who cover the east end of L.A. County and Orange County moved personnel to cover our stations.”
In summer, firefighters carry “strike team bags” with extra clothes, MREs (like the military’s meals) and sleeping bags. They have to respond quickly to brush fires, which occur in the Santa Clarita Valley about 4-5 times per week during fire season.
Each station has a separate jurisdiction and respond to a lot of emergency medical services, or EMS, calls that come in. Station 132, which is located at the entrance to Stetson Ranch on Sand Canyon Road, responds to incidents on the 14 freeway, in addition to brush fires.
When fires break out, adjoining stations send backup, and the L.A. County Fire Dept. joins forces with the U.S. Forest Service.
“We integrate very well together,” Capt. Popp said. “We use common frequencies and common terminology.”
With big blazes such as the Woolsey Fire, there’s an incident command system that serves as the hub of the team efforts.
The strike team reports to “staging,” Carcioppolo said. “With big fires you’re a little more cautious, because there’s a reason it’s so big and you don’t know the area,” he said. “You’re more focused on doing the basics right, to set you up for success.”
Firefighter Aurelio Sanchez and the Station 132 team went to Malibu Lake while the fire was active. One of the challenges, he said, was ineffective radio communication, so they sent a message by computer warning that they were starting independent action. First, a crew from another engine informed them of hazards, and then Sanchez’ team drove the truck uphill, where they joined others in protecting structures – saving as many homes as possible.
As bad as the damage from the Woolsey Fire, the Camp Fire was the worst in California history. It was the result of a bad combination, according to Capt. Popp: high temperatures, wind, and a heavy fuel load.
“You have all the trees and undergrowth,” he explained. “Everything is receptive, so the rate of spread is incredibly fast.”
A lot of residential fires begin when an “ember cast” gets under the eaves of a house.
It’s not entirely preventable, of course, but if you have enough advanced notice, the firefighters said, cover the attic vents. That’s where embers tend to enter the structure and burn the whole house.
Clearing brush around your house is, of course, important. But also, you should move combustibles away from your house, such as firewood, as well.
Properties with regularly irrigated lawns help to deflect the spread of a blaze, but hosing down your roof doesn’t help much, the three firemen said.
Local fire stations are calling in extra personnel because of the threat of mudslides. Residents can pick up sand bags from the stations and some of them also have sand onsite. If the station nearest you doesn’t have sand to fill the bags, fire personnel can direct you to one that does.
For more information, you can swing by one of Canyon Country’s stations for written materials. There’s a “personal wildfire action plan” called “Ready! Set! Go!” and a booklet called “Homeowner’s Guide for Flood, Debris, and Erosion Control.”
In the meantime, though the threats will come and go, Canyon Country can rest easy because, as Carcioppolo said, an important part of their job is to “adapt and overcome.” And they’re prepared.