The day after the Northern California wine country wildfires began, a Santa Clara Fire Department (SCFD) team of 20 firefighters kissed their families goodbye and headed north to assist with what is now called the “October Fire Siege.” Within hours, they were on the front lines fighting the Tubbs Fire between Calistoga and Santa Rosa, not returning home until 12 days later on Oct. 20.
According to an Oct. 30 CAL FIRE summary (www.calfire.gov), “Since the start of the October Fire Siege on Sunday, October 8, CAL FIRE responded to 250 new wildfires. At the peak of the wildfires, there were 21 major wildfires that, in total, burned over 245,000 acres; 11,000 firefighters battled the destructive fires that at one time forced 100,000 to evacuate, destroyed an estimated 8,900 structures, and sadly, took the lives of 43 people.”
A Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) response team consists of five fire engines, each with a captain, and three other firefighters, including a paramedic. SCFD has about 40 firefighters—out of 138 total—with specialized WUI training. Another 17 are members of a national Urban Search and Rescue team led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We are sending out folks that are highly trained, certified and qualified for their position,” said SCFD Battalion Chief Casey Potts, who was deployed to the Mendocino Lake area north of Ukiah as a line safety officer from Oct. 13-20.
Potts was responsible for a different team of 20 WUI firefighters, making sure they could carry out their mission safely. It was his job to check burn plans, assess weather and winds and investigate any accident, such as an overturned bulldozer.
“It’s challenging,” said Potts. “The work is arduous. One minute you’re doing fine, then there’s a wind change.”
Potts was also responsible for base camp safety at Ukiah Fairgrounds. During their 24 hours off the fire line, firefighters fueled trucks, managed equipment, restocked their packs with a 6,000-calorie bag lunch, ate and slept. They slept either in tents or sleep tractors that can sleep 40, with bunks stacked three high.
The hard labor of a WUI team continues when the fire is over.
“Mopping up means long days of hard, dirty work, and it’s not very glamorous. It can be exhausting, working 24-hour shifts,” said Potts. Firefighters are also trained to provide psychological help to people in crisis.
“Even if the work is nasty, dirty, boring, arduous, always with problems to be solved, ultimately, deployments are satisfying because you’re part of a bigger picture with helping people in communities,” said Potts.
Mutual Aid Agreements
Mutual aid agreements are entered into with the state of California, ensuring that sufficient firefighters with specialized skills are available for quick deployment statewide during large-scale emergencies. Santa Clara is not among the 1,329 California communities considered at high-risk for fires (www.osfm.fire.ca.gov).
“California relies on its mutual aid system, and we’re fortunate to be able to participate and provide aid when requested. And we have the ability to draw on resources should they be needed,” said SCFD Fire Chief William Kelly. Costs to the city are reimbursed by the state, including the overtime hours put in at home to cover for the deployed firefighters.
Already in 2017 SCFD has responded to 10 mutual aid requests, compared to an average of six during past years. An engine with a crew of four was sent to the Santa Cruz Mountains Bear Creek fire, which started on Oct. 16. WUI team members are deployed by rotation.
“I’m very proud of our firefighters. We look at every call as an opportunity to serve, whether its residents of Santa Clara or a member of another county that’s suffering loss from a large-scale emergency such as Santa Rosa,” said Kelly. “The key is to make sure the firefighters are trained and equipped for all situations.”
“Being part of traumatic events is part of our firefighter culture. It’s all about helping people and helping your fellow firefighters as well, all working for a common goal, and that’s a really cool thing to be part of,” said Potts.
Only the brave need apply.