Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Why I Like Helicopters

**Warning ** Warning** War Story Alert** Warning**Warning**

“Brush 11, Battalion 2”

“Go ahead Battalion 2”

“ Brush 11, I need you to go up to Bluff lane. Meet up with Engine 21 and assist him with structure protection, you are still assigned to me.”

“Brush 11 copies”

I know that this is a temporary assignment, as we are usually assigned to attack the fire. That is what our engine is designed for. It’s smaller size and higher ground clearance allows us to get closer to the fire and affect an attack. I know that the fire is going to bump into the houses along Bluff st. and that we are short of resources. We are assigned to structure protection because right now, the chief doesn’t have anyone else to send.

We entered the neighborhood and headed to Bluff lane. Bluff lane is located along the top of a bluff that overlooks a vast open space which serves as a floodplain, homeless neighborhood and pick-up spot for perverts. It is filled with heavy vegetation and roughly follows a broad creek bed. It is bordered on our side of the creek by an urban trail, which winds along the base of the bluff. The perverts and the homeless use the trail to access bootlegged footpaths that disappear into the bush. Occasionally, families and ordinary people use the path to hike or bike. The bluff is steep and is covered in annual grasses and light brush.

We have been here many times before. Depending on the wind, humidity and temperature, it can present a challenge to us. Today is hot with lower humidity and a strong west wind. It is late in the summer and the vegetation has been baking for months.

This neighborhood consists of medium sized homes, built in the 60s. 90% of the houses used to have wood shake roofs. Stronger building codes and the loss of a few homes over the years, have caused most of them to be re-roofed with less flammable roofing. The houses on the west side of the street have huge backyards that overlook the floodplain.

As we pull on to Bluff lane, the smoke is quickly wafting around the houses and across the street. This reduces visibility and lets me know that the fire will be there soon. As the smoke lifts for a moment, I can see two type I engines spaced along the street.

“Engine 21, Brush 11, where do you want us?”

“Brush 11, Engine 21, just pick a couple of houses on the north end of the street.”

I have the engineer spot in front of one of the last wood shake roof houses on the street. There are only three of us on the rig. The firefighter and I go to the side of the house and have to kick the side gate open to get into the back yard. Other than the wood shake roof, the property is going to be fairly easy to defend. Some oleander bushes in the rear corner of the yard and a wood fence are going to be my main problem. I look over the side fence and see that the house on the south side is equally defendable.

I tell my firefighter, Johnny, to pull a 1 1’2” into the rear yard of the wood roof hose while I get the ladder from the engine, carry it into the back yard and raise it to the roof. I tell him that I will be next door and that the safety zone is going to be in the front yard. I go back to the engine and pull the reel line into the backyard of the house next door. Visibility continues to worsen, radio traffic increases and I know I have to hurry

I am not happy that I have to split up the crew, but at this point I felt that we were going to be OK and that we could pull it off without too much risk. This whole process took no more than 4 or 5 minutes.

Just about the time I get the reel line in place, the fire is coming up the slope and hits the fence and bushes. The firefighter and I work together, knocking down the fires on our respective sides of the fence. Numerous spot fires start in other bushes, on patio furniture and a wooden deck. I pick up the spots in my yard and check on Johnny. He is caught up with his work, but several puffs of smoke on the wood shake roof tell me that it’s time for me to jump the fence and help him with the roof.

The smokes are handled quickly and the fire has moved on. I try to advise the Chief that our houses are secure, but I can hear him talking to dispatch, requesting more engines from neighboring departments. He is a busy guy right now as he is ordering additional resources, setting up his command structure and trying to manage the resources that he already has. A break in the radio traffic opens and I get through.

“Battalion 2 , Brush 11”

“Go ahead Brush 11”

“Chief, our houses are secure, Engine 21 is comfortable with monitoring the houses on this section of Bluff. The fire has moved down toward Curtis. Do you have another assignment?”

“Affirmative Brush 11, I am looking at a house below you and to the south but I don’t know how to access it. Find access and let me know what resources you might need down there, I think it’s the only house, but its at the edge of the Eucalyptus grove.”

“Brush 11 copies that”

I kind know the area he is talking about, as there is an old yacht that someone hauled down there back in the day and made it into a house. It is kind of a local landmark. I figure the house in question is above the yacht and is probably accessed from Curtis street. We head down there as the fire is making another run on the bluff, this time farther to the south with a quartering wind behind it.

As we drive down Curtis, I spot a narrow driveway disappearing into the Eucalyptus grove. An engine at the yacht is reporting that the fire has hit them and is getting into the grove. I don’t know for sure where this driveway leads or if there is a turnaround at the end, so I tell the engineer and Johnny to stand by while I trot up the driveway and have a look-see.

I run up the driveway about 200 feet and am surprised to meet an old man at the top of the drive. He is holding a little dog and has a scared, clueless look in his wide open eyes. He is teetering in the wind and appears unsteady on his feet. I look past him and see the house, which has an open door with an elderly lady wearing a thin cotton housecoat standing in it. She is gripping her walker, staring at me. There are a couple of wolfhounds in the front yard. The smoke is getting thicker and I can hear the fire burning in the grove. I instantly realize two things.

First, I don’t have time to have the crew back the unit up the drive and deploy lines before the fire gets here.

Second, these folks aren’t going to be able to walk down the driveway, at least not before Christmas.

I felt screwed, but I knew that the best chance for these people at that point in time was to keep them in the house until it was not tenable anymore, then bring them out. I plan on staying outside as long as I can stand it, then join the elderly couple to ride it out in the house.

I usher the man to the door as the lady backs her walker further into the house. The man calls for the dogs who, surprisingly, comply with his command and follow him in.

I run to the west side of the house and see that the fire is a few seconds from the house, there are several small spot fires in the yard and that I can’t find a hose.

Just then, I hear the distinctive WOP WOP WOP of helicopter blades and the sound of a siren sounding. The helicopter makes a drop right next to the clearing and it takes the heat out of the head that was threatening us. It enabled us to get our rig up the drive and save the house, the dogs and the folks that lived there.

I am pretty sure that we would have been OK, but it was not really what I wanted to do. At that point in time, I felt that it was my best option. I later heard that this drop was the first drop made on the fire and that it was made by a CDF (now Cal-Fire) helicopter. I doubt that the drop was requested, I know I didn’t ask for it. Battalion 2 was unaware of my plight, I was just too busy to talk to him.

My guess is that the helicopter arrived on scene, tried to make radio contact with the chief and was unable to reach anyone. He probably took a look and decided that the little house in the eucalyptus grove could use some help. Regardless, I appreciated the assistance.

Thanks for reading,

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Should I stay or should I go?

  • Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble, if I stay there will be double. So c’mon and let me know, should I stay or should I go? – “The Clash” 1981

    Great lyrics from a great punk band. It is also a dilemma that many residents living in the wild land interface are facing.

    It’s only May and already there has been a large wild land interface fire with a significant loss of homes. The one I am referring to occurred near Santa Barbara California a few weeks back. Topography, a long term drought and local weather phenomena all contributed to the magnitude of this fire. I don’t have an exact number, but I read somewhere that over 70 homes were lost.

    I wasn’t there, but I talked to two friends of mine that were. One was a Battalion Chief who was a Strike Team leader of Type III engines and the other was a Capt. on an OES Type I engine as part of a strike team. Both said that the fire behavior changed significantly a few times and caught some folks by surprise.

    As usual in these types of fires, there were “mandatory” evacuations for residents that lived in the affected areas. And as usual, there were people that chose to remain behind and defend their homes.

    Understand that the term “mandatory evacuation” is a relative one. I have been trained that you really can’t “make” anyone leave their home. So typically what happens is that the people who are inclined to leave do so, these that aren’t do not. When a mandatory evacuation order is issued, no one is allowed into or back into a mandatory evacuation area. Usually, law enforcement is responsible for implementing and enforcing evacuation plans.

    I have heard stories of law enforcement obtaining vital information such as name, date of birth and dentist info from people who have chosen to stay and defend. This, I think, is more of a tactic to scare people into leaving.

    Often, a comparison of the “everyone evacuates” doctrine that is prevalent in the U.S. and the “stay and defend” doctrine that is prevalent in Australia is made. Valid arguments can be made for both positions. The deaths of over 170 Aussies in the February firestorms that ravaged the country kind of tilted the argument in favor of the evacuation doctrine. It is interesting that both positions stress preparation and early decision making as the key to success.

    As a constitutionalist, I believe that you should have the right to stay and protect your property. As a fire officer, I think that most people should leave and do should do so early.

    My concerns for people who stay have more to do with safety than for the preservation of property. Someone who stays and is not prepared is more likely to change their mind and leave when they realize the event is more extreme than they anticipated. Now, they are fleeing when conditions are bad and they are under the pressure of time, fright, low visibility, fighting for road space with fire apparatus among other things. This impedes my ability to function and maneuver. It changes my operational objectives and presents increased safety hazards for me, my crew and other emergency personnel.

    Most people have no clue how bad it can really get when it hits the fan. Not every fire exhibits extreme behavior. A lot of residents in the interface have seen fires before, but maybe not under extreme conditions. This is where experience comes in, experience that most residents don’t have and can’t really get. When a large fire front is approaching, that and training is what is going to help someone make proper decisions.

    Burning eyes, zero visibility, inability to breathe, heat and incineration are a few negative conditions that may be present at the head of a fire.

    Here are a few suggestions for people who think they want to stay:
    · Evacuate the wife, kids and pets early. Have them take the wedding pictures, birth certificates, hard drives and all of the other stuff you can’t live without.
    · Wear appropriate clothing. Shorts and flippy-flops aren’t going to cut it. Get some sealed goggles, leather gloves, boots, a long sleeved short made from natural fibers and some heavy denim jeans.
    · Prepare your property by doing the recommended brush clearance. Do this beforehand and keep it that way all year.
    · Prep your house by removing lumber, patio furniture and any other combustibles from around the house. Shut off your gas/propane supply. Close windows and doors, but leave the doors unlocked. Your house may be your best refuge if it gets really bad.
    · Have a safety zone prepared ahead of time. This is an area where you can ride the storm out without any water, equipment or outside help. It also has to be a place that you can get to very quickly on foot without being able to see. Personally, if I didn’t have one of these there is no way I would stay.
    · Be prepared to lose water pressure in your hose. A garden hose is usually too short and too small to be effective when things go bad. Some people have a 1 ½” hose that they have plumbed into their domestic water supply; others lay out from a hydrant. I don’t recommend the hydrant thing because if I need the hydrant, you are going to lose water ;) Regardless, with others in your neighborhood doing the same thing, potential disruption in utilities, plus us using water, the supply is likely to be spotty.

    Again, I think the best thing to do for most people is to leave. Early.

    On the other hand, if you decide to evacuate (recommended choice) here are a few things that can help us save your house:
    · Prepare your property by doing the recommended brush clearance. Do this beforehand and keep it that way all year.
    · Prep your house by removing lumber, patio furniture and any other combustibles from around the house. Close window and doors, but leave the doors unlocked. Shut off your gas/propane supply. Your house may be our best refuge if it gets really bad.
    · Keep all of the really important files and documents in one drawer of your file cabinet. That way you can just pull the drawer if you have to leave. If it can’t fit in one drawer, it really isn’t that important.
    · Make the decision to leave early in the event
    · Put together a plan beforehand. Include your kids and pets, practice it and follow it.
    · Don’t risk your life for stuff. Trust me, if I really think its bad I’m not going to die for stuff either.

    One last note, when it comes the brush clearance, think of it this way. I have two houses to save with the resources to save one. One house has good brush clearance, good access and egress and the owner has prepped his house. It appears that the house can be saved. The other has none of these things. It is built in a poor topographical position and is probably a loss no matter what we do. Guess which house we are going to try to save?

    Here is a link that impressed me with their photos:

    Next up – “Should I stay or should I go verse #2” – For engine companies.

Friday, May 22, 2009

First post - S.O.P. #1

Purpose - This blog is intended to serve as a forum for me to share some of the things that I have witnessed, learned and done during my career in the fire service. I also hope to have meaningful discussion of some of the issues that face the fire service and the people in it. The blog is for both firefighters and civilians. I will try to write the posts in a non-technical way so that civilians may understand it. I encourage feedback and communication and I understand that we may not always be in agreement. Please feel free to comment on any post or ask me anything on the subjects that are related to the fire service or to other subjects I bring up.

Scope - Portions of this policy apply to me, others apply to readers.

Policy - It is the policy of this blog to provde information, observations, thoughts and opinions on the subjects I feel are relevant to the fire service and to subjects that I feel are interesting.

To keep this interesting, it will sometimes be necessary to post on subjects that are controversial or on events that have happened. In order to protect my customers, my co-workers, my agency, my family and myself, I am reserving the right to change names, locations and dates to protect the innocent. The events that I describe will have happened, but will be altered just enough so that identification of the players will not be possible. You can call me out on this if you wish, but this is the way it has to be.

As this blog is available for everyone to read, I will keep the language mostly clean and the subject matter no worse than PG or PG13. This also applies to comments that are posted by readers. I can be a little profane at times, but will restrain myself here. I am not oppsed to a B.S. here or there, but will delete excessive profanity or obscene material.

No hating. We all have opinions, but I don't want any blatant hating going on. It is counter-productive, almost always unfounded and just not smart. We can disagree on religion, politics, race relations, gender issues, policies or whatever and as long as we can express our opinion without being disresptectful, it will be OK. Who gets to determine what is acceptable ? I do. I am the captain. I get to talk on the radio, blow the air horn, control the siren and control this blog.

I reserve the right to change the focus of the blog if I feel that it is veering off of its initial intent.

I apologize in advance if I offend anyone, that is not my intent.

I will try to post every few days. Current events as they come up, war stories as needed and always to answer any questions that come up.

Please cut me some slack, as I can't type very well. I will do my best to write in a manner that is readable, but after all, I am just a fireman.

Thanks for reading, Joe