Heading into the earliest fire season in recent memory in the wake of three increasingly dangerous years, Berkeley firefighters have good reason to worry.
“Because of overall reductions in firefighting capacity at the state and federal levels, there’s an increased potential of more fires getting bigger,” said Deputy Fire Chief David Orth. “There’s a lot of concern.”
In an e-mail to firefighters across the state about the recently declared season, state Office of Emergency Services Fire and Rescue Branch Chief Kim Zagaris warned Monday that “all indications are that it will be as severe as the last four.”
Coupled with recent announcements that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have ended their air tanker contracts, “it appears to be another tough year for firefighters on the line,” he warned.
The federal tanker fleet was grounded on May 10 at the urging of the National Transportation Safety Board following their investigations into three deadly tanker crashes in the western United States between 1994 and 2002.
“The shortage of heavy air tankers may increase the likelihood of emerging fires escaping the initial attack,” Zagaris wrote, “resulting in the need for more firefighters.”
Orth said air support will become available in June through a contract with the California Division of Forestry (CDF). “But if bigger fires erupt in other parts of the state, they’ll be pulled away to work on them. Air support is critical for containment in the early phase of a fire. It’s going to be a lot harder if we don’t have reliable tanker support.”
CDF maintains two air tankers at Hollister that will become available June 1, and three more in Santa Rosa that come on line later in June. All five planes have just been equipped with more powerful engines and their tank capacities increased by half.
Statewide, the Division of Forestry also maintains 370 engines and has the authority to call on 689 more from local agencies, Orth said.
Supplementing the engines are CDF hand crews, who wield axes, chainsaws and shovels to slash firebreaks along the perimeters of conflagrations. They’re staffed by adults from the state prison system and older offenders from the California Youth Authority.
“Statewide, there are now a total of 194 hand crews, staffed by 4,300 prison inmates and CYA wards,” Orth said. But recent state cuts include the closing of several California Youth Authority fire camps, where young offenders train in firefighting skills and respond as needed to blazes around the state.
“The state has been supplying fewer wards to the camps,” Orth said, “so the Bay Area will have access to only five hand crews instead of the seven we’ve had in past years.” Orth blamed the local crew reductions on lower numbers wards assigned to the CYA camp at Ben Lomond in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
With the start of fire season earlier this month, the first sign of blaze in the Berkeley Hills will draw “a full assignment” from the BFD, including three engines, a ladder truck, a wildland truck, an ambulance staffed by two firefighters and a chief—a total of seven vehicles and 15 firefighters.
Oakland would send three more engines, with more—depending on the fire’s location—coming from El Cerrito, Orinda, the Alameda County Fire Department and the CDF.
“In some areas of the hills a fire report would bring 15 to 20 engines during fire season, compared to as few as a single engine out of season,” Orth said. “The massive response is designed to prevent a recurrence of the events of ‘91,” when a massive blaze swept through the Oakland and Berkeley hills, engulfing hundreds of homes.
“The CDF has asked to be called from the start if a structure of car fire threatens vegetation,” he said. “And this year, for the first time, CDF has given us the authority to ask for air support directly, rather than wait ‘til CDF crews arrive on the scene so they can then call for the tankers.”
On hot days when the wind blows from the east and fire danger soars, Berkeley will begin keeping an engine patrolling the hills, two on days when the danger is critical. Unlike other engines, the pump-and-roll units can keep pumping from a hydrant as they roll along a fireline—helping in fast-moving hill fires.
Critical days may also see an additional firefighter joining engine crews, Orth said.
“It’s wait and see for now,” he said. “The weather has been extremely nice. Our peak fire danger usually lasts a month around October, though we expect two months this year.”
To prepare for the tough times ahead, Berkeley’s firefighters have been honing their skills in a series of drills, with the most recent exercise conducted Tuesday afternoon in Tilden Regional Park’s Equestrian Camp.
Wildland 2004, a joint exercise for Alameda and Contra Costa county departments featuring a controlled burn, will be conducted June 29 and 30 at Camp Parker near Dublin.›