Strapped firefighters struggle to control the blaze, documents show

Strapped firefighters struggle to control the blaze, documents show

10 July 2008

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USA — A shortage of equipment and manpower has contributed to the spread of fires across the state, according to frustrated fire commanders trying to subdue the state’s 320 raging wildland blazes.

Internal reports from experts out in the field reveal repeated requests for additional help – and concern for their firefighters’ lives.

“All fires on the Complex are minimally staffed . . . Due to limited resources, there are some divisions unstaffed,” according to an incident status summary by Ron Roberts at the Shasta and Trinity County fire, the site of 34 injuries. “Operational adjustments have been made due to the lack of resources.”

In Kern County’s Piute Fire, commander Chris Hoff asked repeatedly for more officers, writing “Lack of overhead positions continue to hamper suppression efforts.” In a Humboldt County fire, called Hell’s Half Complex, commander Jess Secrest wrote that “Continued inability to fill critical resource orders increases the fire’s ability to enter residential areas, expected later this week.”

More than 700,000 acres have burned – and 99 homes lost – since a series of wildfires scorched the state. The destruction – particularly the expansion of a blaze into several Shasta-based towns – prompted the governor to deploy the state’s National Guard, the first time in 31 years.

On Thursday afternoon, secretary of the Homeland Security Michael Chertoff promised to provide federal helicopters to dump water. He also said he would send out-of-state fire fighters to train incoming National Guardsmen. FEMA director R. David Paulison, a former U.S. Fire Administrator, said he is mapping out an integrated federal response, in coordination with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s staff, to quickly meet the state’s needs.

Earlier this week, the federal government has also said it will reimburse California for many of the costs of firefighting, which could approach $1 billion.

Though there’s been some federal assistance all along, the fires’ ferocity prompted officials to ask for more help. The additional federal aid came in response to appeals for help by Schwarzenegger and U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

Meanwhile, Basin Complex Fire pushed east through the most rugged and rural part of Ventana Wilderness Area, whipped by 25 mph gusts of wind and high temperatures. “Firefighters couldn’t hold the line in places,” said Ivan Eberle, who lives on a 5,000-foot ridgetop along the long dirt Tassajara Road. “They’re really stretched.”

Fewer crews meant firefighters focused on saving the community of Big Sur and some isolated “high risk” homes, leaving the fire’s southeast flank join with the Indians Fire.

“The big priority is to protect lives and structures and combat the fires that are closest to communities,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Cheri Patterson. “We will fight to save those, at all costs. That is where the focus is going to be. We’ve gotten great support – but we need more,” she said.

For nearly a month, firefighters have been moved from one fire to another. According to Boxer, there have been 233 firefighter injuries and one death.

The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, which supervises staffing of the nation’s fires, has issued a report warning that California’s needs were “stretching the national response capability.”

“The situation in California, particularly the northern part of the state, is perhaps unprecedented and the needs for crews, aircraft, equipment and support are already acute,” it said. The group cautioned that “The rate of ‘unable to fill’ orders is increasing.”

Documents called “incident status summaries,” submitted by on-site commanders to U.S. Forestry Service and Cal Fire authorities, show repeated requests for help.

In the Canyon Fire, in Plumas County, two blazes have been reduced to “patrol status,” with no one to fight them, according to Commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley. She wrote: “Lack of sufficient suppression resources, especially hand crews. . .Multiple crews are reaching their maximum work assignment. . .This reduction in resources may affect the predicted containment date and strategies if replacement crews are not assigned.”

 At Hell’s Half Complex, “fire growth has continued. . .five fewer crews being available to work today’s shift.”

The number of concerns written into official reports signals how extreme the situation has become, some said.

“These professionals are not prone to excuse-making. They don’t want to be seen as crybabies,” said Fresno-based Retired Fire Captain Mike Morales, based in Fresno, who has been tracking the response on his “But there are too many fires and not enough resources. My concern is with the kids, the 19 and 20-year-olds, who have been out there for days.”

At the Western Institute for Study of the Environment, an Oregon-based collaboration of environmental scientists, director Mike Dubrasich questioned the early strategy. “They put too few personnel and equipment on the fire far too late,” he said. “It is almost as if the strategy has been to let it burn, other than where there are structures. But they are discovering that it’s kind of hard to stop a megafire when it’s blasting along.”

An estimated 84 wildfires in California are burning “unstaffed,” according to the national coordinating group, “and have the potential to burn through much of the summer and into the fall until rainfall increases.”

“Of course you have to prioritize lives and structures,” said Casey Judd, who represents government firefighters from five agencies through the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association. “But at the same time, at some point, you’ve to put out all the fires. And it would be easier if you stayed on top of them.

“There are fires that are allowed to burn because there are no resources available,” he said.

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