A Precautionary Tale: Battling Fire With Readiness


By Justin Swanson, Special to the Independent


Laguna firefighters on the Top of the World fire road, training with a water-dropping helicopter in preparation for what is expected to be a difficult fire season.

Heading into the weekend, and as of Thursday afternoon, there are 27,165 acres that have either been burnt or are under the threat of fire in the state of California.  Firefighters working from San Diego to Tehama to Riverside to Lake and Colusa counties have contained 64% of all major fires in the state so far.  Earlier than year’s past, fire season has started once again.

This week, firefighters, including some from Laguna on an Orange County Strike Team, worked to douse major wildland blazes in Kern County and three other counties around the state, evidence fire season ignited earlier than year’s past.

All over Southern California, the gravity of the proximate threat of fire inspires trepidation as summer creeps toward fall. In Laguna Beach, heat and wind heighten most of the population’s acuity, already hyperaware of the potential threat lurking within the bordering wild lands that could erupt around us.

Laguna Beach, like elsewhere in the nation, has plans of action to combat fire or to react to it in an effective manner. They are networked. They are trained. They are ready.

In fact, preparation is such an integral part of a fire fighter’s job, they are required to devote two hours a day to training. Training Division Chief Tom Christopher said Laguna’s crews run through everything from driving off-road to running wild land hose to deploying a fire shelter. These training sessions are an all encompassing tactics and strategy review. Recently, that also included wild land fire training and an air operations class with a water-dropping helicopter from the Orange County Fire Authority.

Throughout the state, fire departments are required to take part in an annual fire line refresher course, which is wild land specific. That is where firefighting is focused, especially in our area.

After the 1993 firestorm, which consumed more than 400 homes, fire fighters redoubled their efforts at fuel modification. Fire Marshall Dan Stefano describes it as, “creating a fire break around the city.  We try to create a buffer zone, or a fuel break, between structures and the fire interface.” Goat grazing is included in the program.  Stefano says biologists now identify native and protected plant species in pastures as well as which plants are unhealthy for the goats, which are fenced off while animals do their part to chomp a fire break.

Collective preparedness, though, could and would help Laguna’s defense and improve overall safety for everyone. Stefano implores citizens to take responsibility for their respective homes and properties before firefighters ever have to, urging them to investigate the Ready-Set-Go program, a plan for citizens to react to local fires (http://www.readyforwildfire.org/).  The steps call to prepare structures by clearing vegetation, establishing a plan should a fire break out and evacuation be necessary.

If property owners have questions, fire fighters are more than willing to personally inspect property for its fire preparedness. “Help us help you,” as Christopher put it.

As home to multiple disasters over the past two decades, Laguna’s firefighters are not alone in managing fire and fire safety. The Greater Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council, headed by Chair Dennis Grzeskowiak, who succeeds founder David Horne, actively assists through its red flag patrol and fire alert program.

When Santa Ana winds blow, its volunteer members deploy red flags, a “highly visible reminder to all citizens in the region to be extra careful and vigilant,” said Grzeskowiak.

Its members also patrol specified roads and lookouts for suspicious activity.

“In a typical fire season, there are three to five red flag alerts,” Grzeskowiak said. Stefano calls the council, “a great example of a community effort to prepare for fire.”

Should fire start, structured pre-planning is put into action, beginning with identifying what resources should go where. From there, firefighters determine a plan of attack; in a major blaze of more than 12 hours, firefighters plan in 24-hour increments. “Once we’re past that, we lay out a game plan that is pre-established, providing a solid road map for how we handle the fire,” Stefano said. While the strategy for firefighting can generally be arranged beforehand, Stefano admits that gauging how many resources should be called upon can be tricky while assessing the threat of fire.

When a department determines it needs more help, the mutual aid system is put into effect, where resources from other departments throughout the state are called upon to assist depending on the severity of the situation. There is a network in place that allows for the dispatch of resources statewide without weakening the defenses of assisting departments. They are drawn from perimeter zones in the immediate area.

The OC Fire Authority is responsible for providing air support, among other things, to places like Laguna. Helicopters are sent in, “often for cliff and vegetation fires as needed,” says OCFA Capt. Marc Stone, while the fixed-wing craft are reserved for state and federal parks.

Over the last two years, improvements have been made to a reverse 911 system that can issue evacuation or orders to stay in place to the public.

“It has been a hot year,” said Stefano. “You throw in the winds and everything is lined up for a bad situation.”

So take the advice of fire fighters and prepare for an emergency: have a plan in place, defuel your property, remain alert when temperatures and winds rise.

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