Fire season keeps strike teams busy
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.
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