As wildfires rage across dust-dry California and the West, firefighters scramble and shift to new locations to provide enough coverage in battling those blazes.
However, departments also must leave enough resources at home, in case fires break out there, especially during this fourth summer of severe drought.
So, are enough firefighters and equipment available to the North Coast if a fire breaks out in wildland areas or the community’s 3,000-acre-plus, Monterey pine forest?
The question arises often these days, especially in Cambria when people are discussing recent changes at Cambria Fire Department, the interim management for which now is being handled by Cal Fire.
Responses to recent fires, including three in smoldering, lightning-struck trees (two in the same area) and a series of spot fires on Cambria Drive (apparently caused by vehicle exhaust) would seem to indicate that the town continues to be in good hands. The previous cooperative relationship between the two departments continues, according to firefighters and Rob Lewin, chief of county/Cal Fire and the interim chief of the Cambria department.
He said in recent email and phone interviews that none of Cambria Fire Department’s personnel or resources, including its water-hauling tanker truck, have been deployed elsewhere. And Cal Fire’s “move up to cover” protocol means that Cambria fire station also is staffed, albeit not always with the same crews or leaders.
“All personnel days off have been canceled for the foreseeable future,” Lewin said. “This staff is used to maintain our initial-attack strength.”
And the aircraft, which are so crucial for early, intensive attacks on wildfires that frequently can keep a small fire from getting out of hand?
“Generally, we have had aircraft at Paso Robles continuously,” Lewin said Monday, Aug. 10. “Aircraft do move up and down the state as needed. So, for example at this very moment, one of the air tankers normally stationed at Paso is flying a fire in Riverside County.
“New fires always get priority on aircraft,” which can be “immediately diverted from a going fire, unless there is an immediate life threat. So even when on a fire, they are still available.”
The chief said, “National Guard aircraft have been activated to increase the numbers of helicopters and takers that both the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire have available. This helps ensure availability for initial attack. … (Also) over 200 National Guard troops are currently being trained at Camp Roberts as type 2 hand crews for deployment to fires.”
Cambria Fire is about to lose a 26-year veteran of the Cambria Fire Department: Fire Capt. Steve Bitto is due to retire Sept. 24.
He’s a founder and team coordinator of the volunteer North Coast Ocean Rescue Team and a water-rescue division chief for Fire Management Consultants.
Lewin said Aug. 11 he’s “begun discussions with CSD management” on how to fill the captaincy after Bitto retires.
“We haven’t gotten to the answers yet,” Lewin said. “There are several options, but we’ll probably use the same process CSD always had for vacancies. We could promote someone, but it may require a new test, one that may or may not be ‘open list,’ ” which means that outsiders could apply.
The chief said, “We have 43 days, so we … don’t have to fill the vacancy immediately. We have the capacity to cover it with reserves,” as the department has done in the past to fill shifts when one of the captains or engineers was injured or on vacation, “but we don’t want it (the vacancy) to linger. We don’t want to have too much overtime, because that gets hard for the employees.”
Meanwhile, Eric Shalhoob, the Cal Fire battalion chief tasked since July 1 with running day-to-day operations at Cambria Fire’s station, is on a pre-arranged vacation through August, Lewin confirmed.
“Our guys do annual vacation scheduling” that’s approved at the beginning of each calendar year, he said.
Lewin said the vacationing Shalhoob called in to be part of an Aug. 11 conference call about Cambria Fire.
Battalion Chief Phill Veneris, who has fought fires in Cambria for years, was able to cover Shalhoob’s previous vacation in July, but Veneris has been assigned to one of the Northern California fires for now, Lewin said. So Battalion Chief Paul Lee, who lives in Morro Bay, was on duty in Cambria along with Lewin on Aug. 11.
Lewin said, “We essentially have three battalion chiefs and a duty chief 24/7, barring really extreme conditions. Everything’s well covered.”
As of 10 a.m. Aug. 4, Lewin reported in an email interview that from Cal Fire’s countywide unit, “six state Type 3 engines, two county Type 3 engines, one Office of Emergency Services team, three state dozers, four crew strike teams and 31 overhead positions” had been deployed elsewhere, along with 47 state employees and 119 inmate firefighters.
That, he said, left “10 state engines, three dozers, two county water tenders, four battalion chiefs and a duty chief” available, with “all county, city and district fire stations covered.”
Lewin said the following week that those levels remained the same. “While we still have many personnel on fires in Northern California and continue to send more when we can, we are not at our lowest ‘drawdown levels’ because we are backfilling with personnel called back to duty and resources from Southern California.”
Improving the spotty coverage for cellular communications is another factor in fire protection, according to Lewin and other fire officials. The topic continues to be a top priority for them and the Fire Safe Focus Group, which was to have discussed Wednesday, Aug. 12, progress toward adding more antennas to improve reception.
Applications to add three smaller, pole-mounted antennas in Cambria neighborhoods are on the agenda for the North Coast Advisory Council meeting that begins at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 19. The meeting is at Rabobank, 1070 Main St.
The group has amassed additional letters of endorsement for doing that, among them one from the Cambria Community Healthcare District and another from Sheriff Ian Parkinson.