Fire sea­son keeps strike teams busy

Imperial Valley Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY JULIO MO­RALES | Staff Writer

IM­PE­RIAL COUNTY — In the 10 months that Joel Lara has been a fire­fighter with the Holtville Fire Depart­ment, he has twice been de­ployed statewide with lo­cal strike teams to pro­vide mu­tual as­sis­tance during what has been an es­pe­cially de­struc­tive fire sea­son.

While the ini­tial anx­i­ety that Lara had felt re­spond­ing to lo­cal calls for ser­vice has all but van­ished, re­spond­ing to scenes of ma­jor fires else­where in the state may take the rel­a­tively new re­cruit some get­ting used to.

“Once you get there, it’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent story,” Lara said. “It’s hum­bling.”

Since the start of the year, thou­sands of fires have been re­ported across the state, scorch­ing nearly 500,000 acres and re­sult­ing in dozens of deaths re­cently in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

During that time­frame, per­son­nel from the Holtville Fire Depart­ment have been de­ployed eight times as part of lo­cal strike teams called to pro­vide mu­tual as­sis­tance else­where, Lara said.

His first strike team de­ploy­ment came in Au­gust, during the Mias Fire in River­side County that went on to burn a to­tal of 545 acres, and which was about 45 per­cent con­tained when Lara and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing strike team ar­rived.

“They got a pretty good hold of it right from the getgo,” he said.

More re­cently, Lara was part of a team that was de­ployed to fight the mas­sive wild­fires in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Although the strike team and di­vi­sion he was a part of was not di­rected to the fire’s front line, Lara was able to as­sist with mop-up du­ties, which are no less crit­i­cal to pro­tect­ing lives and prop­erty.

It is also com­mon for fire­fight­ers to ac­quire as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble about a par­tic­u­lar fire’s con­di­tions be­fore­hand, to bet­ter pre­pare for what’s to come.

“If con­tain­ment is low, then we know that we’ll have to put in a lot of work,” Lara said.

De­struc­tive fire sea­son

This year has been shap­ing up to be a mem­o­rable one to date for the Im­pe­rial County Fire Depart­ment as well, which has sent re­sources out six times this year in com­bi­na­tion with other lo­cal agen­cies, said Chief Tony Rouho­tas.

Although the 2017 fire sea­son has not been quite as ac­tive for ICFD per­son­nel as the 2009 and 2015 sea­sons, it has been no less mem­o­rable.

“This has been one of the most de­struc­tive,” Rouho­tas said.

As dan­ger­ous as the outof-county de­ploy­ments may be, Cali­pa­tria Fire Depart­ment fire­fighter Bernard Thomas said that he looks for­ward to the dif­fer­ent kinds of train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties they pro­vide.

“You get to work with dif­fer­ent de­part­ments and see how ev­ery­thing is run,” Thomas said.

Thomas has also been de­ployed two times this year with lo­cal strike teams, once on a four­day as­sign­ment to San Bernardino County and more re­cently on a 12-day de­ploy­ment to the Napa area.

As op­posed to the 12hour shifts he had worked during his first de­ploy­ment this year, Thomas said the lo­cal strike team was as­signed 24-hour ac­tive duty shifts while in Napa, with a 24-hour rest pe­riod in be­tween.

“I adapted pretty well,” he said.

During that time, the strike team was tasked with struc­ture pro­tec­tion, which re­quired fire­fight­ers to clear brush and ma­te­rial sur­round­ing homes if they were con­sid­ered de­fen­si­ble.

In some in­stances, homes with an over­abun­dance of flammable ma­te­rial found in close prox­im­ity, such as over­hang­ing trees, would be con­sid­ered in­de­fen­si­ble.

De­spite the wide­spread death and de­struc­tion that re­sulted from the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires ear­lier this month, res­i­dents re­mained thank­ful for the fire­fight­ers’ ef­forts.

“We got a lot of love and re­spect from the fam­i­lies out there,” Thomas said. “That makes it a lot eas­ier.”

The ma­jor­ity of the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia fires are ex­pected to be fully con­tained by this week­end, state of­fi­cials stated.

In re­sponse to the dev­as­ta­tion, Gov. Jerry Brown had re­cently de­clared a state of emer­gency aimed at se­cur­ing aid from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and cut­ting red tape to help cleanup ef­forts.

“The dev­as­ta­tion is just un­be­liev­able, it’s a hor­ror that no one could have imag­ined,” Brown had said.

Con­stant de­ploy­ments

The re­cent wild­fires in the Napa area re­sulted in the sixth de­ploy­ment of the year for Holtville Fire Depart­ment Chief Alex Silva, who has served as strike team leader.

Typ­i­cally, the strike team lead­er­ship po­si­tion will be ro­tated among sev­eral of the lo­cal fire depart­ment chiefs, de­pend­ing on their avail­abil­ity.

“Most of them I did, I had to cover for some­body,” Silva said.

The 12-day de­ploy­ment to the Napa area was the long­est de­ploy­ment of the year for Silva, who has par­tic­i­pated in other de­ploy­ments that ranged from two to six days.

Even though his wife and chil­dren may not agree with Silva’s ab­sences, he said he rel­ishes such op­por­tu­ni­ties, know­ing that his and his col­leagues’ ef­forts are for the good of the com­mu­nity and an op­por­tu­nity to rep­re­sent the county and the other lo­cal fire­fight­ers’ re­spec­tive de­part­ments.

“It’s a chance to be part of some­thing big,” Silva said.

The de­ploy­ments also al­low the strike team’s leader-in-trainee to ac­com­plish a list of re­quired tasks needed to be­come a strike-team leader.

Such tasks in­clude ac­quir­ing pro­fi­ciency in back burn­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with fire­fight­ing air­craft, plan­ning and com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“That’s why it’s dif­fi­cult on a one-or-two-day as­sign­ment,” Silva said. “It’s hard to get all the things in the task book done.”


Fire­fight­ers from sev­eral lo­cal de­part­ments as­signed to a strike team pro­vided mu­tual as­sis­tance re­cently during the La Tuna and Mis­sions fires in Septem­ber. PHOTOS

A nearby moun­tain­top is seen smol­der­ing ear­lier this month during a wild­fire in the Napa re­gion that a lo­cal strike team was de­ployed to pro­vide mu­tual as­sis­tance for. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF THE HOLTVILLE FIRE DEPART­MENT

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