Local fire departments spread thin due to state wildfires

Local fire departments spread thin due to state wildfires
New firefighter helmets await the six newest members of Carlsbad Fire Station No. 5. Photo by Shana Thompson

REGION — The fire season appears to be growing longer and more intense.

In fact, many fire experts throughout the state believe California’s wildfire season is now a staple.

As a result, local fire departments are stretched thin as part of their responsibilities in battling more than one dozen wildfires throughout the state. One reason is local fire departments in San Diego County are part of the Master Mutual Aid Program through the San Diego Operational Area, according to Carlsbad Fire Chief Mike Calderwood.

Currently, there are 14 active wildfires in the state, while another five have been contained, according to the Cal Fire website. The largest is the Mendocino Complex, consisting of the Ranch and River fires, which has scorched more than 300,000 acres. It has become the most destructive in state history.

Oceanside Fire Chief Rick Robinson said his department currently has seven firefighters deployed in California and Montana, which has left his department spread thin.

Calderwood’s department also has strike teams deployed, although both chiefs emphasized local staffing and service levels remain their priority.

“You can’t close a fire station because you sent somebody to Northern California or Yosemite,” Robinson said.

Staffing

When Carlsbad, Oceanside or any other department responds to a wildfire, strike teams are deployed. Per the aid agreement, each department is equipped with an Office of Emergency Services engine, which are green, and used specifically for wildland fires.

“We coordinate with agencies all over the county so we don’t over deplete,” Calderwood said. “We share in the burden. We evaluate that on a consistent basis to ensure the local areas are protected.”

The San Diego Area has sent out 12 teams to battle blazes across the state. Calderwood said each team consists of 22 people per team, 264 total, who are gone between 16 and 18 days.

Those crews are rotated out after 14 days (they are given two travel days on each end of service) and another 264 are deployed.

What this means for local departments is the loss of several firefighters, which stresses staffing levels. For example, Robinson said Oceanside Fire Department has seven firefighters deployed and those who remain work three or four days straight, which is not their normal schedule.

“There is many different ways of scheduling those 24-hour shifts,” Robinson explained.

Robinson, Calderwood and others must also be prepared if and when a fire breaks out in San Diego County, compounding the staffing problem. For Oceanside, another challenge is overcoming the void of seven open positions.


But maintaining service is in the forefront as Oceanside Fire Department will respond to more than 20,000 calls per year, while Carlsbad Fire Department responds to more than 13,000, so any forces deployed leaves each department thin.

“We don’t drop the levels of protection here,” Calderwood said. “Other agencies up and down California do the same for us. Your people are working an awful lot.”

Fire season

Fire season typically begins in September and runs through November, Robinson and Calderwood said, but the past few years has seen a swift change. Drought conditions, extremely dry fuel, winds, increased population and more buildings in rural areas have also accelerated the state’s fire danger.

Many experts, though, also say climate change plays an added role in the destructive force and extended season of wildfires. In fact, President Donald Trump came under criticism for tweeting the state’s current fire conditions are a result of policy, not conditions.

Regardless, the fires are becoming larger and more intense, Robinson and Calderwood said. For example, in December 2017 the Lilac fire reached Oceanside and scorched 4,100 acres, killed 45 horses, injured two people and destroyed or damaged more than 200 buildings and forced hundreds of residents to evacuate.

Crews in San Diego also responded to the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, where the blaze torched nearly 282,000 acres, killed 17 people and destroyed or damaged more than 1,300 structures. It was the most destructive fire in state history until Mendocino Complex broke out.

Historically, Calderwood said, December is not considered fire season.

“I think it’s accurate now because of the drought and general conditions we’re in fire season all year round,” Robinson said. “It keeps the fuel ready to burn, and that’s the real issue.”

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