Fighting Fire with Fire
San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine (September 2001)
It is 7:00am Sunday and Fire Behaviorist Pat Congdon is up to his knees in blonde oat grass, frowning at the display on his handheld anemometer. Not the slightest breeze, and the relative humidity is soaring. A marine layer pushed in overnight and the grass he is standing in wouldn’t light if he dropped a book of matches in it.
Normally, Pat would be pleased. A Resource Manager with the Santa Clara Open Space District, it is his job to keep these hills from burning, but today there are 300 firefighters, 50 fire trucks, a helicopter and a big yellow Caterpillar D6 bulldozer converging on Pat’s location, all expecting to find a bully-good conflagration to snuff out. “We’ll be lucky to have fire on the ground before 11:00am,” he sighs.
This is day two of Wildfire 2001, an annual exercise held on the United Technologies campus in the mountains behind San Jose to train the fire departments of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in the art of fighting wildfires at the “interface,” the boundary between suburb and wildlands. It was an interface fire that destroyed 3,354 homes in Oakland Hills a decade ago, and another that charred 14,000 acres and over 40 structures above the Lexington Reservoir half a decade before that.
Fire is part of the bay area landscape, and these hills once burned with the regularity of a Silicon Valley downturn. But 50 years of suppression have kept fire out, and now we are building houses in the midst of the accumulated fuel. Observes Congdon: “As we push our communities up into the wildland, we upset the natural order and create the potential for enormous catastrophe”. A 1990 study by the CDF—California Department of forestry—estimated that nearly a quarter of a million homes in the bay area are located within the interface. A new study is in the works, but it doesn’t take a mathematician to consider a decade’s worth of additional construction and recalculate the risk. As CDF fire and Resource Assessment Chief Bill Stewart put it to me, “A lot of homes and people could be caught up in an Oakland fire conflagration if it started during high winds on the Peninsula or in the Santa Clara county foothills.”
+Back at the Wildfire Command Post, Lexington and the other big interface fires of the recent past are very much on the mind of Doug Sporleder, Fire Chief of Santa Clara Fire, and one of the two “ICs”—Incident Commanders—running Wildfire 2001. Sporleder arrived on-scene at Lexington barely an hour after it started and assumed command of the burgeoning attack. Pausing under a Valley Oak just outside the ring of antenna-festooned command vehicles, he recalls that very long week in July 1985. “We scrambled for resources and everyone heard our cry for help—even San Francisco sent trucks, the first time their engines had left the city since 1956. But the fire escalated faster than the resources could be mobilized and we struggled to catch up.” Before it was over, Lexington would absorb over 3,000 crew and 275 engines, not to mention 14,000 acres and over 40 structures.
“These large fires are like wars—their lessons drive changes that are still reverberating through the fire system today,” observes Sporleder. Lexington triggered fundamental changes in mutual aid—for example San Francisco now routinely responds to fires all over the Bay Area, and San Francisco crews were among the first on-scene at the Oakland fire. Oakland painfully showed that wildfire could occur in an urban settings, further emphasizing that city fire departments needed the tools, training and tactics to battle interface fires.
The wildfire exercise has been held annually for over a decade, and Sporleder and his colleagues are relentlessly pursuing further improvements. Wildfire runs over 300 firefighters from 30 fire agencies through exercises covering the basics of interface fire-fighting: progressive hose attack, structure protection, and personal fire shelter deployment. They work side by side with state firefighters from the CDF and the California Conservation Corps and leave with a good sense of what to expect when they are called to tackle a wildland conflagration. Wildfire is also a welcome example of cooperation between the public and private sector: the exercise takes place on private land owned by United Technologies Corporation and UTC’s fire Chief John MacDonnell is both host and key Wildfire planner. “Without UTC’s hospitality, we’d be sunk,” confesses Sporleder, “there simply isn’t another location in the two counties where we could do this kind of exercise.”
More than the engine crews who learn from the exercise. Because Wildfire is organized and operated with the same incident command structure used in an actual emergency, the “overhead” who run the exercise—the Incident Commanders, Battalion Chiefs, department heads, mechanics, clerks, cooks, communicators, safety officers, meteorologists, fire marshalls, and emergency medical technicians are honing skills and building working relationships crucial to success in a real emergency. Wildfire is nothing less than a live-fire simulation of what everyone at the exercise will face in a real emergency. “Everyone participates, and everyone learns,” notes Sporleder.
Out at United Technologies main gate, the first engines are arriving after a long pull up the Metcalfe grade. Each vehicle and it’s crew are checked in, given a thorough safety inspection and then assigned to a five engine “strike team,” which is promptly dispatched to one of the three exercise areas. Just as at a real fire, the composition of these teams is determined by order of arrival, and unless a crew happens to arrive in a convoy of trucks from their own department, they are likely to find themselves teamed with crews from all over the two counties. For the rest of the exercise, each strike team will work, rest and move as a unit.
Over at the Progressive Hose Attack exercise area, the second strike team of the day is chasing up a hill after a line of fire set minutes before by yellow-clad lighters dispensing gobs of burning kerosene from drip torches into the grass. More accustomed to dragging hoses from hydrants to houses, the crews at first struggle on the unfamiliar terrain, but quickly fall into a rhythm: chase, spray, pause, clamp, add more hose and chase some more. A captain guides the way while his crew struggles with the heavy inch-and-a-half hose. Smoke and steam rise as water hits flame, and from inside sweaty, ash-smudged goggles, the world shrinks to a small grey stage punctuated by red-silhouetted shadows.
“Progressive” is an exercise with all the adrenaline of the real thing. Yesterday morning, the first strike team out was just hitting stride in some very dry grass when their hose burst behind them. No problem—hoses burst all the time and firefighters are trained to clamp below the break and lay in new line. Except this time, the clamp failed because it was from one fire department, the hose from another, and the two were incompatible. While the team struggled with their immediate problem, the fire did the unexpected and took off across the hill. In the blink of an eye, half an acre was blackened and the fire had grown beyond anything a single strike team could contain.
This is exactly what could—and does-happen in a real wildfire, but unlike the real thing, there is backup in depth at this exercise. “We are messing with the Devil whenever we have live fire,” explains Sporleder, ” and we run things accordingly.” An “escape team,” a CDF crew with it’s special four-wheel drive fire truck called a “type III” is deployed on the ridge specifically to catch any wayward flames, and a CDF D6 fire-dozer is idling under the oaks nearby. Within moments, dozer operator George Setty trundles his Cat down the hill, lowers his blade and pushes a break across the fire’s path. The escape team swings in close behind to spray down the dying fire with a line snaked from their Type III. After a quick break and debrief, the lighters will set their torches to the grass again, and another strike team will chase a new line of fire up the hill. Before the day is out, they will have blackened the better part of 30 acres, itself integrated into UTC’s ongoing fire control and habitat protection program.
It is astounding to watch an experienced crew work a fire line. While city crews have to deal with any manner of fires, from structures to autos, others specialize. Joining the exercise was CDF Copter 106 from the Alma Station at Lexington Reservoir,” a Super-Huey helicopter manned by a pilot, two fire captains and 6 firefighters. Unlike the truck crews, these copter-borne firefighters travel light, carrying only hand tools and five-Gallon backpack pumps. Late on Saturday afternoon, I followed as they took on a billowing 100 foot line of 6 foot high flames eating across a hot summer field, and reduced it to black ground and wisps of smoke in a matter of minutes. Moments later, their orbiting mother ship swung in low, trailing a 340 gallon drop-bucket, and drenched last remaining hot spot.
Fire Chief Mike Stonum, the CDF’s liaison at Wildfire 2001, explained to me that helitak is a “complete package” and the dramatic waterdrops are only part of the picture. CDF’s goal is to contain 95 percent of all wildfires at 10 acres or less, and the helitak crew are CDF’s initial attack shock troops. “They live fire,” explained Stonum, “in a typical day during fire season, they will easily work five or six incidents all over central California. They are fast, aggressive, and very, very safe.”
Across the valley from Progressive attack, San Jose Fire Captain Jose Guerrero is leading the Fire Shelter exercise. He looks out over the field one last time and shouts “fire on the Ground” as his lighting team of three firefighters touch burning fusees—red fire flares-to the dry grass. In the path of the flames are a dozen-odd aluminized mylar pup tents; huddling prone under each is a fire-fighter who moments before scratched a bare spot on the ground, and pulled the fire tent from a belt pouch that is an essential part of wildland fire gear. The scene looks like an art installation of oversize potatoes ready for a post-modern grill. Slang for this exercise among the fire crews is “shake and bake.”
Fire fighters hope they never have to deploy their shelters—it is a desperate last measure exercised only if something goes seriously wrong and fire is about to overrun a crew. Shelters have saved lives, but they are no miracle fix, as was so tragically demonstrated by the deaths of four firefighters in Washington earlier this summer. Here, safety monitors are ubiquitous, two hose teams are standing by, and the crews agreed to participate only after being reminded by Captain Guerrero that the exercise was not mandatory.
I shadow the safety officers, listening as they follow the advancing flame line, coaching the cocooned firefighters. As the flames pass the shelters, I can’t help but wonder if any of the volunteers are having second thoughts. Imagine being huddled in a thin metallic shroud, unable to see a thing, all the while catching whiffs of smoke, every sense on the alert for telltale hotspots that could spell trouble, fire under the shell. “The danger is fire underneath you, that’s why we scrape out a bare spot first,” explained one officer. “These things are only as good as your training.” And sure enough, moments after the fire passed, one of the fire fighters bolted up prematurely, freaked out by what he thought was fire in his shelter. Bad move. He is safe enough here, but had he panicked in a real blow-up, he’d be toast.
The humidity bedeviling Behaviorist Congdon evaporated before noon, and by late afternoon moisture is just a dim memory. By 4:00pm, the IC and his command team decide to call the exercise on account of the weather. A dry southerly wind flowing off a cold front hovering over the coastal range has wicked the grass tinder dry and Sporleder’s coveted safety margin is gone: the fire bosses are no longer be certain they can manage what they might light. The strike teams crews stand down, and convoys of engines begin snaking down the hill to join the weekend traffic on 101 while the CDF escape crews settle in to baby-sit the site until they are certain everything is stone-cold .
Back at command under the oak trees, San Jose Fire Division Chief Nick Thomas leads the overhead debrief as the IC looks on. Six hundred personnel trained through the exercise this year. No injuries, no accidents. A few minor radio glitches though, and much teasing over a Saturday logistics snafu that meant no coffee until 11:00am—coffee is to fire fighters what donuts are to police. A month from now, the command staff will meet again in an after-action review to study the lessons learned, and begin planning anew for Wildfire 2002. As the overhead finally break camp and start to drive out, half a million Bay Area residents are sitting down to dinner, savoring the last of a quiet weekend before another hectic week at the office. They live in the interface, but wildland fire is the farthest thing from their minds.