Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the experience of local firefighters during the Rock Fire, and fighting fires in general.
The recent Rock Fire, while significant, was not the largest fire that’s occurred in Del Puerto Canyon to date, and only the latest in a series of incidents that local firefighters have faced this year. There will no doubt be more to come. Experts have warned of increased fire danger due to thicker vegetation than unusual, and firefighters all over the state have been kept especially busy these last few months and longer.
The cause of the Rock Fire, which started at around 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 25, is still under investigation.
Patterson Fire Division Chief Jon Schali and Patterson Fire Captain Mike Ambrosino, along with West Stanislaus Fire Protection District Westley Fire Chief Paul Lara and Newman volunteer firefighter Alex Diaz, recently described their experiences both at the Rock Fire, and fighting fires in general.
Ambrosino and Lara both arrived on the scene right after the CalFire Santa Clara Unit, which came from the station located on the south side of Sperry Avenue, about a mile east of I-5. “(Chief) Paul Lara and I responded,” he said, “Got there about two minutes after CalFire did. At that point, we were just trying to start putting a plan together; Paul started calling for resources.”
“Budget our energy”
The fire occurred around sundown, and, already at tens of acres, was not going to be put out quickly. Those first on the scene were in for a long night.
“That time of night, we budget our energy. That’s why we call for a lot of people. It was pretty tough for those guys,” Ambrosino said, referring to the ground crews initially fighting the fire, explaining that the blaze was at least 100 feet up a steep hill behind the rock known locally as “Graffiti Rock.”
“The type of terrain made it difficult; it was just a lot of steep hills, difficult access. That time of night, we had no air support. (CalFire aircraft do not fly at night.) No helicopters, no planes… so it was ground personnel, and a very long, progressive hose lay, up a steep hill.”
Firefighters walk along an edge of the fire, spraying it with water from the hose, laying it down behind themselves along the way. The wildland hoses are carried in packs containing two rolls of 100 feet each. “We start off from the engine, drop one roll, and basically progress about 100 feet, fighting fire, then drop another roll, clamp the hose, add another piece of hose, go as far as we can, clamp it,” he said, adding that hose lays can go for thousands of feet.
The hose packs weigh 40 or 50 pounds; Schali described carrying a hose pack as “like putting a bag of dog food on your back.”
Diaz, the Newman volunteer, was working at Diablo Grande at the time of the fire. He and the rest of the brush fire rig’s crew met up with CalFire crews about 100 feet up the hill, he said.
“They were up there,” Schali said. “The only reason I knew where they were, is you could see the little headlamps on their helmets, way up at the top of the hill, along the fire line.”
Both Lara and Ambrosino said they did a lot of scouting that night; Lara on the south end of the fire and Ambrosino on the north, the direction the fire was heading.
Ambrosino said one of the firefighters, whose family runs cattle in the area, directed him to an old fire road. He drove a mile and a half or so, looking for an area where the bulldozers could get in, and “cut a good line,” or wide swath of bare dirt, to stop the fire’s progression.
He described the beginning stages of fighting a fire as “kind of a semi-organized chaos.” As crews and equipment arrive, they need to be assigned to wherever they’re needed most. The I.C. (Incident Chief – the highest-ranking firefighter first on the scene) is very busy organizing these resources while keeping tabs on the fire, working to get good communications set up and evaluating whether the fire is “something that’s gonna get put out in the next 30 minutes,” Ambrosino said. “Once CalFire gets there, they start evaluating that, and start putting a big plan together... and they start looking way ahead.”
CalFire, responsible for fighting wildland fires that could be anything from a few square feet of dry vegetation on the side of the highway to hundreds of thousands of acres of forest or grassland, manages every incident with the assumption that it could become large-scale. The agency’s protocol, honed over many years of fighting fires over hundreds of thousands of acres, is as efficient and effective as possible. By 7:15 the following morning, Ambrosino said, the agency had set up what he described as “a mini-base camp” at the Santa Clara unit station on Sperry, holding a briefing and providing food for those fighting the blaze.
Boots on the ground
Lara said that resources, both crews and equipment, began arriving almost immediately: “The first 30 minutes, 40 minutes, maybe even an hour, we just kept getting engine after engine stacking up on Del Puerto (Canyon Road),” he said, so he set up a staging area for them.
Fire engines typically bring crews of three or four, and can provide about 500 gallons of water. The big tankers, or water tenders, carry about 3,000 gallons.
There for the duration
It’s not unusual for the initial firefighters on a scene to work 30 hours at a stretch, before backup begins to arrive.
“The initial attack is just – go, because the fire doesn’t take a break,” Schali said. “By 8 or 9 o’clock that next morning, we had a lot of resources rolling in.”
During the night, the Santa Clara CalFire unit ordered equipment from other CalFire units, he said, but it took time for them to arrive. “They’d ordered a task force out of Stanislaus and San Joaquin county, which consisted of five engines and a leader, that were coming in that morning. So there’s a lot… that was done at night; all this stuff is being put together, and all the chess pieces put in place.” Meanwhile, “the crews – these guys here (Ambrosino, Lara, Diaz and others first on the scene), they’re that initial attack, and they’re pretty much there for the duration, until (all of) that can be set.
“But as Captain Ambrosino said, they had a mini-base camp set up at CalFire,” Schali said, “they had food; they had water; they had all of these amenities that go along with a larger incident. While when we were up there (at the beginning of the fire), we had what was in the cab of our engines. So that first 24 hours, you just kind of wing it; you know, these poor guys, I mean, they were out there, and they whipped it up that hill, and they finished about 3, 4 o’clock in the morning. Luckily, everything was starting to get kind of under control. So they were able to sit down and relax for a while.
“Hand crews were coming in. By 4 o’clock in the morning,” he added, “I think we had four hand crews (30 members each). They were all ‘con crews,’” he said, explaining that the crews consist of “people out of the prisons who are trained to cut line and all that. All these things take time, so these poor guys are running around out there all night long, doing their thing, and there’s no stopping until those things (backup resources) start coming.” By daybreak, he said, the requested help started to arrive, and “we were able to break free and rotate out. Everybody was pretty zonked by morning.”
Ambrosino said he’d been up for 29 hours, as had, he presumed, the rest of the crew.
In the beginning, the firefighters confirmed, the hard physical work is fueled at least partly by adrenaline. But at the end of 30 hours, or however long it takes for backup to arrive, the fatigue can be overwhelming.
Schali said he was “going down the road at about four in the morning,” when the need for sleep hit him, but he decided against it: “If I do that, they’re gonna find me sleeping on the side of the road,” he said, laughing. “So I pretty much would just stop and talk to people, and move through once we had everything settled out. You just keep going. It’s really hard. If you can find a spot, especially if you got someone with you, where you can just close your eyes for a few minutes, it makes a big difference. It kind of revitalizes you.”
Lara said he’d unsuccessfully asked one of his crew to wake him in 20 minutes. “I told him I was gonna close my eyes for about 20 minutes; wake me up,” Lara said. “I closed my eyes, and I hear him snoring.”
Fighting a fire long enough to see the sun go down and come back up again brings on its own kind of exhaustion.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) conservation camp crews, or “con crews,” assist in emergencies such as fires, floods, and other natural or manmade disasters, according to the CDCR website. When assigned to a fire, conservation camp crews are responsible for clearing dry vegetation and other flammable materials down to bare soil, creating a physical barrier to slow or stop the spread of a wildfire. Conservation camp firefighters create firebreaks using chainsaws, shovels, and other hand tools, the website notes.
“An inmate must volunteer to serve their sentence in a conservation camp,” CDCR Public Information Officer Alexandra Powell said via email. “After an inmate volunteers, they must also be cleared by CDCR medical staff as physically fit for vigorous activity. Volunteers are screened on a case-by-case basis and must have “minimum custody” status, or the lowest classification for inmates based on their sustained good behavior in prison, their conforming to rules within the prison and participation in rehabilitative programming. They must also have five years or less remaining on their sentence to be considered.
“Some convictions automatically make an inmate ineligible for conservation camp assignment,” she added, “even if they have minimum-custody status; including rape, arson, history of escape and sex offenses.”
Whatever the crew members’ backgrounds may be, no doubt the firefighters are glad to see the large, white vans filled with extra hands when they arrive.
Next week: Camaraderie, control vs containment, drones