Grass fires like the ones eating mammoth swaths of ranch lands borderingCentral Valley cities this week are an increasing threat to homes assubdivisions move into former agricultural lands, fire officials said Wednesday.
The question is: Will agencies charged with protecting these urban areas beready?
Images of out-of-control wildfires bearing down on neighborhoods are nolonger confined to suburban canyons of Southern California. As shown by firesWednesday in Chico, and earlier in Sacramento and Stockton, these events are nowa part of city life in the region.
The most recent blaze to threaten homes broke out Wednesday near Chico, whereup to 1,000 residents along Honey Run Road and surrounding areas were ordered toevacuate due to a wildfire in Stillson Canyon, off Highway 32.
The fire had jumped the Skyway, burned 3,500 acres by 7 p.m. and was notcontained, said Cindy Wilson, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Forestryand Fire Protection.
Bay Area resident Steve Ruiz was visiting his brother, a Honey Run Roadresident, for his niece’s eighth-grade graduation.
Ruiz said he didn’t see any flames, but “I saw the fire trucks comingand the smoke getting heavier and closer.”
“We got out safe. That’s the main thing,” he said.
Ruiz was among a handful of evacuees at a shelter set up in NeighborhoodChurch in Chico.
Cal Fire spokeswoman Suzanne Brady said only about 50 people had passedthrough the shelter.
But the parking lot was packed with travel trailers and recreational vehicles.
One injury was reported and about 250 homes were threatened, many of themlarge ranches with animals.
Another blaze Wednesday outside Lincoln burned just 65 acres but injuredthree firefighters who got trapped by the fire along Nicolaus and North Dowdroads. Two suffered moderate to severe facial and arm burns, and the third hadminor facial burns.
Two of the firefighters are with Cal Fire, which has thousands offirefighters assigned to wildfires throughout California. Dozens of thosefirefighters were called in to fight not only the Chico fire, but others nearSacramento and, late Wednesday, near Santa Cruz.
The Santa Cruz fire flared just two weeks after a blaze two miles awayscorched 4,200 acres and destroyed at least 36 homes. Late Wednesday,evacuations were ordered for 500 residents in the heavily forested hills.Voluntary evacuations were in place for another 1,000 residents.
The Sacramento County wildfire, which broke out south of Jackson Highway onTuesday, was the largest that many veteran firefighters could recall in thecounty. Its toll, surveyed through the charred calm Wednesday: 6,400 acres andabout a dozen buildings, including two homes.
While not matching the size or destruction of the wildfires that ravagednearly 500,000 acres just outside Southern California’s cities in October, theJackson Highway blaze was another reminder of the severe threat facing bothurban and rural residents in the region, officials said.
The Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, which covers most rural areas ofthe county and led the response to the Jackson Highway fire, is prepared forthat reality, officials said.
The department conducted a large wildfire training exercise earlier this yearin the American River Parkway and regularly trains alongside Cal Fire, said Capt.Jeff Lynch.
“We have a lot of homes scattered in wildland areas and we do asignificant amount of training in that geography,” Lynch said. “Allthat being said, the magnitude of this incident was really on a scale that weare not used to seeing in this area.”
Capt. Steven J. Eggiman, 46, was severely burned while battling the JacksonHighway fire, according to Lynch.
Lynch said Eggiman is recovering in the burn unit of the UC Davis MedicalCenter, where he is being treated for third-degree burns to his hands, andsecond-degree burns to his forearms and nose. He is expected to make a fullrecovery, Lynch said, but that it could take several months.
More urban agencies, such as the Sacramento Fire Department, considerthemselves “high-rise departments” they are better equipped tobattle fires in densely populated settings, said Capt. Jim Doucette.
“We don’t have the resources to handle those incidents alone,”Doucette said of large grass fires. “We’ve always fought grass fires, butmost of the time they’re in some vacant lot.”
Doucette said the department does minimal wildfire training. Theadministration, however, is aware of the threat such fires may pose to the city.
The department has sent teams of firefighters to large wildfires such as theones in South Lake Tahoe and Southern California last year and will continue todo so to build experience, he said.
When wildfires threaten homes, urban departments are often called in toprotect structures, officials said.
“A lot of times we get out of our element a bit because we feel morecomfortable fighting a house fire,” said Sacramento Fire Capt. ChrisSwarbrick, who helped fight the blaze near Jackson Highway on Tuesday. “Butwe’re not at all deficient in wildfires. If there is a need for structureprotection, that’s our element.”
Urban departments undergo much of the same training as their federal andstate counterparts. They adhere to the same incident command system, “allowingfirefighters from any agency of any rank to work seamlessly together,” saidBill Mendonca, a battalion chief and fire investigator with Cal Fire in PlacerCounty.
“It’s just assumed that they all had that wildland fire training, thateverybody has the basics,” Mendonca said.
However, state and local fire officials recognize their different roles.
“If you are a structure guy, a lot of times you are running into aburning building,” said Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the U.S. ForestService. “Whereas, if you are a wildlands firefighter, you take a step backand try to remove the fuel in front of the fire. Our firefighters will never runinto a burning building. We play to each others strengths.”