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California’s Massive Wildfires Present Unique Challenges for Firefighters

By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

At any moment, Captain Peter Jensen could be deployed to join thousands of firefighters battling massive wildfires spreading across central and southern California. Currently, the Soberanes fire in central California has burned more than 51,000 acres, destroyed at least 60 homes and remains only 27 percent contained. California fire officials anticipate it could quadruple in size, potentially engulfing 165,000 acres and continue burning through the month of August. The Sand fire, which broke out July 22 near Santa Clarita and burned 41,432 acres, has been mostly contained by firefighters.

The threat of additional wildfires remains high due to incredibly dry conditions throughout California. The state is in the midst of a five-year drought, which has led to an intense and early fire season.

“Our historical fire season is usually September through December, but now we’re seeing wildfires with intense fire behaviors in March and April,” said Jensen, a 27-year veteran firefighter with the Ventura County Fire Department. “So that means in Southern California, we’ve established nearly a year-round fire season because plants and trees don’t have time to recover when there’s no rain.”

Year-Round Wildfires Take Toll on Resources, Local Firefighters

Captain Peter Jensen with the Ventura County Fire Department responding to a fire at a farm supply yard.

An extended fire season consumes more resources and makes it difficult to provide the manpower needed to fight large wildfires all year round. “These fires add a burden at the local level especially, because state and federal resources are largely seasonal and staffed only during the height of the traditional fire season,” said Jensen, who started his nearly three decade career as a wildland firefighter. “Now we’re having these larger fires outside of that staffing pattern, so there’s a reliance on local firefighters to provide that initial and extended attack, whether the capability is there or not.”

Ventura County Fire Department is an all-risk fire agency, so firefighters are trained to fight wildfires, structural fires and other hazards. Like a few local fire agencies, in addition to full-time all-risk firefighters, Ventura also employs two hand crews that are trained and dedicated to fighting wildland fires. Hand crews are used as the “boots on the ground” workers who hike or are flown in by helicopter to the fire’s edge to construct control lines and extinguishment using hand tools, chain saws, and sometimes even additional fire.

However, a large portion of those personnel are also seasonal. “This year, we brought our seasonals on in April, but may have to lay them off in December. Seasonal wildland firefighters across the local, state and federal levels are constrained by funding and when the allotment of funds is expended, they are laid off. For the last few years we’ve needed them through December because we’re still having so many fires.” As an example, the majority of pilots, bulldozer and water tender/tanker operators are contract-based and their contracts are similar to that of seasonal firefighters — they also have very limited availability in the winter or spring months.

These massive wildfires aren’t just a problem from a staffing perspective, but the intensity and increased unpredictability of these fires makes it extremely difficult for commanders to control and extinguish these fires.

Intense Fires Provide Command Challenges

If Jensen gets deployed in the next few weeks, he’ll serve as a supervisor, responsible for a geographical part of the fire. Jensen, who recently graduated from American Military University with a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management, is qualified as a Strike Team Leader-Engine and a Division/Group Supervisor-trainee. “Commanders have to understand topography, weather and typical fire behavior,” he said. “They also need to understand their crew’s capabilities as well as the capabilities of other teams in the area and the equipment that is available, the size of that equipment and the ability of operators.”

[Related: Using Drones to Fight Fires]

Commanders also need to understand why the fires are so much more intense during this long drought. A major factor is that the lack of moisture in the region has caused a devastating invasion of insects. “As the trees dry out, the bark beetle bores deeper and deeper between the bark and the tree, which creates a gap separating the bark that ultimately kills the tree,” explained Jensen. “So now there are hundreds of thousands of dead or dying trees, which contribute to the fuel available to the wildfire.” The less moisture in the trees and plants, the easier they are to ignite and maintain combustion.

The massive amount of dry fuel leads to bigger, more intense fires that spread faster. “These dead large trees are creating a greater heat output. Heat rises, which creates a larger fire and more heat and more updraft, which then creates stronger winds, which blows embers farther out in front of the fire, speeding up its rapid spread,” said Jensen. This process leads to severe, faster-moving fires, which makes it hard for commanders to predict fire behavior.

Tactics of Wildland Firefighting

Commanders continue to reinforce wildland firefighting tactics, including L.C.E.S, an acronym for lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones. Jensen constantly reminds crews to maintain heightened situational awareness while fighting fires.

[Related: Loss of 19 Elite Firefighters in Yarnell Hill Wildfire]

“Because things are happening so much faster with these fires, crews need to pause and almost move slower so they have time to anticipate and react to what the fire’s doing at that moment,” he said. “As commanders, we try to lead a fire in a certain direction, but it’s moving faster than we can lead it so there’s the potential to get into a bad position and get overrun if we’re not paying attention to those changes.”

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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