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,

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