Wildfire lessons change strategy

Wildfire lessons change strategy

22 October 2008

published by www.signonsandiego.com

USA — The firestorms that engulfed swaths of Northern and Central California earlier this year were turned back with the help of an army of firefighters – literally.

For the first time in more than three decades, the California National Guard dispatched crews with picks and shovels to the front lines from Big Sur to the Oregon border.

It may not be the last time. Fire officials, pressed for resources, suggest that emergency call-outs may become more common across the state.

Deploying the National Guard cost the state about $26 million. Nevertheless, its expanded role was the most significant new strategy to come out of the north state firestorms, most of which were ignited by an estimated 2,000 lightning strikes June 20.

Today, 400 National Guard soldiers are on high alert, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice in case of a repeat of the nightmarish 2003 and 2007 fall fire seasons in Southern California.

“We will have troops trained and ready to go if California is struck by devastating fires in the future,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Ellsworth.

Firefighters are among the first to acknowledge that every incident adds to lessons learned. For example, the 2003 infernos in San Diego County exposed significant flaws in communications that threatened lives and property. Simply put, firefighters had difficulty talking to each other because some agencies used different radio frequencies or equipment.

Since then, technological advances and priority funding have helped firefighters mostly overcome those challenges, so much so that Ellsworth called the ability to bridge radio frequencies “really a key to our success . . . It’s working better and better.”

The fires in the north also illustrated the value of inmate crews that reinforce the front lines, as they did during the 2003 and 2007 firestorms in Southern California. Despite broad support from state fire managers, budget constraints threaten to disband inmate crews. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier this year proposed closing nearly a dozen facilities, including La Cima Conservation Camp in San Diego County. He later retreated from that proposal.

The nearly two-month-long firestorm took a staggering toll: 15 dead, including nine members of a firefighting crew on a helicopter that crashed on takeoff in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest east of Redding on Aug. 5. The 2,096 fires torched 1.2 million acres and claimed 511 structures statewide, and at one point they threatened the tourist mecca of Big Sur.

“It was an angry sky – I can tell you that,” said Del Walters, Cal Fire’s executive director who was at home in Redding when the bolts struck in the nearby mountain ranges.

One of the most frightening fires was in Butte County, where thousands were evacuated, particularly in the Paradise and Concow areas east of Chico. In the end, 106 residences were lost in the close-knit Concow community. Only a desperate, all-out stand in the Feather River Canyon spared those communities from more devastation. Earlier in the spring, two fires in Butte County destroyed more than 100 homes, most of them in the Paradise area.

In contrast, the October 2007 firestorm in more densely populated San Diego County claimed 10 lives and 1,646 homes. Those blazes burned 368,000 acres.

With Northern California’s vast forests just one errant match or lightning bolt away from going up in flames again, fire managers welcome the newfound assistance from the National Guard. They also point to some shortcomings exposed during the firefight.

“We have some holes,” Walters said.

Among those: a need for additional helicopters; keeping conservation camp inmates on the job; advanced vehicle locating systems to strategically maneuver engines and aircraft quickly; and specialized thermal imaging technology that cuts through dense smoke to pinpoint fire locations.

The price tags give fire managers pause: one helicopter, $13 million, and one year’s worth of inmate labor from a conservation camp, $1.7 million. The vehicle locating systems for helicopters and engines have not been priced. Nor has the remote thermal imaging technology, according to Cal Fire.

Cal Fire officials said each need must be stacked up against other budget priorities, such as full staffing year-round and replacing worn engines.

“I wish I had a lot more apparatus. That’s not going to happen. We’re going to have to do the job with what we have,” said George Morris, a Cal Fire deputy chief based in Oroville.

Morris is a strong proponent of using more inmate crews, saying they were a vital force in the ground attack. There are 39 camps statewide with about 4,300 inmates available for duty, according to Cal Fire.

“They were spread out all over creation on every fire,” he said.

Meanwhile, fire risks are multiplying. Aggressive suppression, particularly to protect lives and homes in the backcountry, has had the unintended consequence of allowing deadwood and brush to stack up under trees like kindling. And climatic changes linked to global warming threaten to lead to more persistent droughts that ripen fire conditions.

Carl Skinner, a U.S. Forest Service research geographer, argued that clearing undergrowth and deadwood that fuel more severe flames would help minimize threats.

“We’ve become fairly successful at stopping fires and storing all that fuel up,” he said. “The fires now burn even more severely and dangerously, like they did this year.”

The Northern California blazes ignited when a lightning storm hit offshore near Eureka and crawled eastward for 24 hours.

Morris, a 35-year veteran, said, “I’ve seen some big fire sieges, but this was obviously the biggest.”

More than 25,000 firefighters from 46 states and six countries rushed in to extinguish the blazes, which blackened skies for weeks. Among those were 4,453 members of the National Guard, voluntarily joining the front-line hand crews.

Gen. Ellsworth described the call-out as a “nonstandard mission” that he welcomed. In addition to the 400 now on alert, the guard has 2,000 fully trained soldiers in reserve.

Guard crews underwent an intense safety course before being released to the lines. Once there, few problems were reported. The injury list reached about 150, most of which were strained backs common among weekend warriors. More unusual were the rattlesnake and spider bites. “Nothing serious. Everybody who had an injury recovered,” Ellsworth said.

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