USA – As strong Santa Ana winds batter our bone-dry Southern California hills, which haven’t seen substantial rain since last spring, authorities are warning everyone to be on alert for fires.
The National Weather Service is saying conditions are “particularly dangerous,” comparing them to those that caused the massive Thomas Fire in 2017.
In anticipation, the Los Angeles County Fire Department is sending out strike teams to problem areas so that they can respond quickly to any fire.
To find out what it’s like waiting for the worst, last year on a red-flag night, I took a trip out to Station 89 in Agoura Hills, where Strike Team 1103 Alpha was hunkered down.
PREPARING FOR THE WORST
By the time I got there at 9 p.m., the firefighters had already eaten a taco dinner and were ready to crash.
Wind gusts of up to 80 miles per hour were expected to hit the Santa Monica Mountains that night, raising the fire risk in the steep hills between the 101 Freeway and the beaches of Malibu.
At any minute the team might have to wake up from a dead sleep and go.
“We want to be in the s**t,” said Engineer Jeff Kimura. “We always say 1103 is the tip of the spear. We want to be there first, do as much as we can and take care of business.”
Most of the prep work had already been done.
Any items they’d need, like brush boots, shirts, and goggles meant to protect their eyes from ash, had been laid out. Cards listing critical radio frequencies had been pre-written so they could communicate in the field. Maps of the area were pulled up on GPS in the cabin of the truck. And they’d taken a trip to REI to buy some snacks and ready-to-eat backpacking meals in case they had to be out in the field for a while.
“The Woolsey Fire we were up for 38 hours straight the first couple of days. We were just following the fire, putting house fires out,” said Kimura.
“You get really hangry after a little while. After the first couple of strike teams, you’re like OK, on this next one you’re like I’m going to pack some extra food, some extra bags of jerky.”
IDENTIFYING ESCAPE ROUTES
Santa Ana winds cause erratic fire behavior, which is obviously a big risk to firefighters on the ground.
Just the week before, Kimura and his colleagues had had a close call on another wind driven event — the Tick Fire — out in Santa Clarita.
They were in a narrow valley trying to protect a house, when a wall of flames began to close in behind them far more quickly than they’d anticipated, he said. They had less than a minute pack up their hoses, jump in the truck, and race away.
“The fire was licking the engine. We actually burned a couple of stickers, melted a light, and made it,” said Kimura. “Fifteen-30 seconds later we would’ve been driving through fire.”
In the days before the red flag, 1103 had already driven the nearby mountains, spotting escape routes and safe areas they could retreat to if everything went pear-shaped.
“It’s kind of like you’re a doomsday predictor and you’re trying to predict the worst-case scenario,” said Captain Eric Tucker.
“A true safe area might be an area where you can stand there and the fire’s going to burn by you, and you’re going to be able to stand like I am right now with no safety equipment, no protective equipment or anything like that.”
Also crucial to prep are conversations with veteran firefighters.
“We have some individuals on the job who’ve seen a lot of fires and they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, I’ve been on this same fire five times over the course of 35 years on the job,'” said firefighter Greg Thomas.
“Fires like to burn the same. Even though it’s a different wind event, the wind’s stronger so it’s going to burn a little different, but fires go pretty much in the same area if they start in the same area.”
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PEOPLE DON’T EVACUATE
When asked about people’s behavior during wildfires, Firefighter DJ Russell said he’s most concerned about homeowners who don’t leave when evacuation orders are issued.
“If people decide to stay at their house, that’s their decision, but if they get in our way while we’re trying to save others it can be frustrating,” he said.
Chief Steve Cabrera said that sometimes they’ll find property owners, clad in fire gear, planning on protecting their homes from encroaching flames, all on their own.
“We try to let the guys know, ‘Hey this guy’s committed, he’s going to stay. It’s his property, he’s going to protect it,'” said Cabrera.
“We do warn them that the ultimate danger is them dying. So I might tell them, ‘If it gets really bad, duck inside your house and come out if your house starts burning down, obviously come out where it’s safe.'”
“Usually when you say, ‘You may die,’ their face changes a little bit. And we’ve had that conversation and they’ve said, ‘Yeah, I think it’s time to go.'”
SEVEN HOURS LATER
Eventually, 1103 booted me out so that they could get some sleep, which was a good move, because just seven hours later the Easy Fire broke out in Simi Valley about 15 miles away.
Pushed by strong winds, it crept right up to the edge of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
1103 and countless other groups converged on the blaze, and in less than 24 hours the fire was brought under control.
A close call on a day with high winds, but they were fortunate — it was no Woolsey Fire. While three structures were destroyed, no lives were lost.