Firefighters sent away to fight wildfires

Firefighters sent away to fight wildfires

22 July 2008

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USA — With wildfires burning up and down the state, firefighters are being called away from their local stations and sent to the front lines.

But that doesn’t mean properties here aren’t being protected.

“The people who are here work extra hours to cover the stations,” Santa Clara County deputy fire chief Ken Kehmna said. “When we send an engine out, we put a reserve engine in and staff it. It typically takes a few hours to get replacements.”

Kehmna said stations in Los Gatos, Campbell, Saratoga and other parts of the county also had additional staffing during the recent heat wave. “It’s our way of being overly cautious,” he said.

Kehnma estimated that 80 percent of the county’s firefighters have responded to wildfires in Santa Cruz, Mendocino, Shasta and Butte counties.

In addition to sending trained firefighters to the wildfires, the state has ordered 600 members of the California National Guard to the front lines.

Volunteers with the California State Military Reserve, which is headquartered in Sacramento, are supporting the National Guard.

Among the support personnel is Los Gatos Realtor Mike Frangadakis. He was called up July 4 to coordinate logistics. “There are a lot of us who have been activated,” Frangadakis said. “Most of us are just ordinary citizens, but I’m considered a soldier now.”

Frangadakis described the headquarters as a mini-Pentagon. “We buy sunscreen, bandages, whatever they need we buy it. I just bought 250 pairs of boots and 3,000 pairs of underwear the other day. We’ve literally cleaned out stores.”

Frangadakis’ day starts at 6 a.m. and goes until 6 or 8 p.m. “I’m tired at the end of the day, but you lose track of time. It’s exciting,” he said.

Another person who is out of town during this state emergency is Capt. Bob Connolly who works at the county fire station at Winchester Boulevard and Lark Avenue. Normally he would be responding to calls in both Los Gatos and Campbell, but he is currently in Junction City battling fires alongside U.S. Forest Service firefighters.

Capt. Bill Morrison, who works at the downtown Saratoga fire station, returned July 8 from a week in Butte County. “It was a heck of an experience,” he said. “We usually do structure protection, but this time we laid hose and did stuff CalFire would normally do.”

Morrison was one of six Saratoga firefighters sent to Butte County. The total contingent sent included 22 firefighters, five engines and a battalion chief. The group as a whole is known as a strike team.

Morrison said when his strike team arrived in Butte County, it was immediately evident that there is a shortage of responders. “A base camp is usually full of fire engines,” he said. “This one was half empty. The resources are just spread out all over the place.”

To contain the Butte County fire, bulldozers were used to run a trail that separated burned areas from those that were not burned. “Our game plan was to go down the’dozer trail and put out hot spots in the burned area, so if the wind picked up it wouldn’t blow embers into the dry stuff,” Morrison said.

Morrison was also in one of the first strike teams that battled the Summit fire in late May. “We were there within two hours, keeping it from burning houses,” he said. “The idea was to get on it right away.”

Morrison said the combination of hot and windy weather so early in the fire season is unusual. “Usually, it’s windy in June, but it’s not hot and the fuel [brush] has a lot of moisture in it. In October it’s hot, but not windy. So these conditions we’ve been seeing are the perfect storm.”

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