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Emergency responders work together to train for 2010 fire season

Modified: Tuesday, May 4th, 2010


Ready for anything - firefighters from San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties participate in a comprehensive briefing and training exercise addressing strategy, predicting fire and weather behavior, use of communications, structure defense and ensuring safety of both the public and emergency services personnel. The training took place as part of the annual Wildland Urban Interface training exercise aimed at preparing fire fighters for the approaching fire season. Pictured above, a variety of photos from the recent training exercise. In the photos depicting firefighters in bag-like safety structures, a siren blares indicating an immediate evacuation from the “fire area,” and firefighters quickly retreated to a nearby clearing. Amidst heavy "wind conditions" produced by strategically placed fans, firefighters struggle to wrap themselves inside the safety structures. No live fires were set. Photos by Hayley Thomas.


Approximately 200 firefighters from throughout the San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Monterey counties - including representatives from the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management - gathered in Santa Margarita Saturday, May 1 for the annual Wildland Urban Interface training exercise aimed at preparing fire fighters for the approaching fire season, which generally runs from the middle of May through November, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Approximately 40 vehicles total were involved in the daylong training exercise, and the California Highway Patrol along with a Department of Forestry and Fire Protection helicopter conducted operations within the training area.

"It's good to get out after the rainy season and start practicing these skills," said Paso Robles Fire Captain Randy Harris. "So far so good. It's good to see multiple agencies coming together because on big incidents we always do. It's good to work together."

George Brown, who serves as the secretary treasurer of the fire training officers, said differing counties, agencies, emergency personnel, staff and volunteers have united for the day of training for the past 20 years.

"This is a premier event around the state. We have more than 170 people from local, county, state and federal agencies. [Today] we're out here in Park Hill Road [area], and every year we hold [the training] in a different place in the county," he said. "The goal is to bring various units together to have an inter-agency drill and [to] practice advance techniques of managing an urban interface fire...it takes a year-long effort. We use the same concept to plan an event like this as we do to fight a fire."

The day began at 8 a.m. with a training session hosted at Santa Margarita Elementary School, where attendees received an overview of the historical large-scale fires in the area surrounding Santa Margarita. After the overview, fire trucks from Salinas, Pismo Beach, Paso Robles and a slew of cities representing the San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties rolled down H Street and headed for the Highway 58/Parkhill Road area located east of Santa Margarita for a comprehensive briefing and training exercise addressing strategy, predicting fire and weather behavior, use of communications, structure defense and ensuring safety of both the public and emergency services personnel.

Once briefed on a possible wildfire scenario, the firefighters treated the drill like the real deal, hauling heavy hoses and trekking up the side of a steep incline to address the wildfire, represented by orange plastic bags. Water was used briefly, and no fire was lit during the training process.

According to Cal Fire/San Luis Obispo County Fire Inspector Clinton Bullard, the bags were used due to the fact that the markers are economical, environmentally friendly and safe. The trainees also treated a nearby structure – the Santa Margarita Caballeros club house – as if it could be threatened by the wildfire.

"I imagine what we are going to see is a flank attack, and then some structure defense,” Bullard said. “[The firefighters] are utilizing this as if the structure is here, which it is, and they will train on how they will defend that.”

Bullard also said communication during the training process is key. "Everyone knows what the goals and objectives are, and the safety measures and the communications. They know what they need to do," he said.

During one portion of the day's training, a siren blared indicating an immediate evacuation from the fire area, and the firefighters quickly retreated to a nearby clearing. Amidst heavy "wind conditions" produced by strategically placed fans, the firefighters struggled to wrap themselves inside their baglike safety structures.

"[The safety structures] are not fireproof,” Bullard said. “The idea is to deflect radiant heat, and hopefully it passes over you. [The firefighters] were briefed that this is a scenario they would be dealing with, but it could happen at any moment, and they knew not when it would happen."

According to retired Cal Fire Captain Dave Gowan, the need for a good game plan in the event of a major fire is always crucial, and this year SLO County residents may face a higher chance of wildfire due to recent rains and excess grass. Grass is defined by firefighters as "fine fuel," while heavier foliage and oak trees are considered "heavy fuels." Both play an integral role in the movement and intensity of a wildfire, said Gowan.

"We do have the very heavy grass this year...and fine fuels carry fire and react much more readily to changes in weather conditions [like] wind, heat, temperature, humidity, that type of thing, so the grass is kind of the carrier of the fire into the heavier fuels," said Gowan. "With the heavy grass comes the potential for fires to move much more rapidly, and carry a lot more heat into the heavier fuels. Once the heavier fuels get going, then that's what creates the big fires that become tougher to manage, so the potential is certainly there this year."

Roy Parsons, a North County rancher and Caballeros club member who was on-cite as the training commenced Saturday, said he has seen his fair share of fires, and knows what to do to keep the clubhouse, as well as his own property, safe.

"We like to cooperate with the firefighters, and we like to have them keep an eye on our place,” Parsons said. “So we really enjoy having them here, honestly. We are aware of what the dangers are, and that's why we have good clearance here, and I prune my trees up so the fire can pass under and not damage the trees, so I believe in those things."

According to Bullard, being proactive about keeping property safe this fire season is well worth the effort.

"The hard work that Mr. Parsons does, - and the individuals out in this area - to clear the brush, clear the grass, and make sure their address is clearly visible will pay off hugely,” Bullard said.

For more information regarding tips on how community members can prevent the occurrence of wildfires, visit http://www.fire.ca.gov.



For the complete article see the 05-04-2010 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 05-04-2010 paper.


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