It’s beyond noticeable when nearly 30 fire engines all arrive at the same time in a town the size of Cambria, even when it’s for a daylong drill so firefighters from two counties can practice their wildland blaze-battling techniques.
Fortunately, there were no fires, and none of Cambria’s precious water supply flowed through the fire hoses.
But, according to officials, firefighters from near and far learned a lot of about the problems and hazards of fighting fires in the middle of a Monterey pine forest that’s filled with dying trees and brush.
There were three different scenarios in the drill, and strike teams from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties rotated through the scenarios to provide the widest range of experience for the firefighters and leaders.
▪ Strawberry Canyon — According to Cal Fire Battalion Chief Brett Walker (Las Tablas/Lake Nacimiento station), the premise of the drill there was a quickly spreading mock fire that started in the lower reaches of the canyon (near Burton Drive and Kay Street) and was burning eastward toward neighborhoods in the Pineridge Drive/ Ellis Avenue area. (A similar fire happened there in 2003).
Firefighters did a “progressive hose lay,” and practiced some of the actions they’d take to protect the area and homes.
A Cal Fire air-attack plane repeatedly circled the area, as it would if the pilot were dropping retardant to slow the progress of a blaze.
▪ Bridge Street shaded fuel break — Alan Peters, Cal Fire forester and division chief, supervised crews who were practicing using chain saws on dead trees, brush and downed wood, just as firefighters would do to create defensible space around their homes and potentially reduce the spread of a forest fire.
“Each team was assigned a structure by the strike-team leader,” he said, and would “assess the structure as to its survivabity in a wildland fire. … We have to do this kind of work when a fire is bearing down on us,” Peters said, “whereas if the homeowner does it in advance, we can concentrate on protecting the house.”
In the process of the drill, the crews also “improved the fuel break while we were training.”
▪ Fiscalini Ranch Preserve — Crews practiced a series of structure-triage, “bump-and-run” protection maneuvers near the wildland-urban interface along Warren Road and Trenton Avenue.
People at the drill were able to understand how bad it could be when the community is situated in a Monterey pine forest.
William Hollingsworth, incoming Cambria fire chief
According to William Hollingsworth, new chief of the Cambria Fire Department, in a real fire, “bump and runs” are ahead-of-the-fire, house-and-property inspections to determine and perform actions to protect the home from an oncoming fire, if firefighters have deemed that the structure can be saved.
Hollingsworth said those actions could include taking down trees, removing curtains from windows, putting some things into the garage, placing ladders against the house, readying the homeowner’s hose, “prepping the structure in case a wildland fire came through.”
Community Emergency Response Team volunteers also manned a fourth site near the Hillcrest Drive/Manor Court area, he said, working with members of the Sheriff’s Office to practice notifications and traffic control.
Firefighters used several existing plans to map out their drill, including a Cambria preattack plan, Walker said, which helps to acquaint the out-of-town and out-of-county firefighters to the terrain, the streets and the community. Officials agreed that’s crucial.
“I’ve worked out of the Cambria station many times,” Walker said, “but some of these firefighters are seeing the town for the first time.”
After the three crew rotations were done, participants packed the Veterans Memorial Building for lunch and a debriefing, at which Cal Fire Battalion Chief Greg Alex wrapped things up.
“He was talking about how dire the situation is now in Cambria,” Hollingsworth said. “Have rains over the past year helped? There’s not that much change, except the understory has grown up quite a bit, which means there’s more fuel on the ground.” And tree mortality is a huge concern.
Hollingsworth said he believes the most valuable lessons learned were about accessibility and “widespread acknowledgement of the extreme fire hazard in the area.
Accessibility was an issue everywhere, he said, especially on Warren Road and other narrow, confined streets where engines and firefighters had to jockey for space with residents leaving or arriving home, trash trucks, delivery vehicles, etc.
He said he “heard repeatedly that the layout of the streets was problematic for people who’d never been here before.”
Apparently, a lot of fire engines got lost, even with GPS on the rigs.
Cambria Fire Engineer Tyson Hamilton agreed, saying problems finding Cambria locations were “very apparent in the drill.” He said he thought the drill “went great,” and that it was “very good that we got multiple agencies, especially from out of our area” so they could “figure out how to drive around here.”
Hamilton said the “main idea behind this drill” is that the visiting crews “would be the ‘second-in’ group of firefighters to the scene,” assisting the initial strike team.
He said, “The main problem in Cambria is the terrain” and spotty communications.
About the fire hazards, Hollingsworth said, “People at the drill were able to understand how bad it could be when the community is situated in a Monterey pine forest” with an estimated “mortality rate of 60 percent or above. … The community was built where it is, so there’s nothing we can do but respond to the dangers as they exist.”
That’s when a practice session is invaluable, he said, with “the physical practice of doing all the skills in a new terrain, new location.”
Leonel Salas, who’s been a new reservist with Cambria Fire for about a month, said he thought the drill had been “great … a real opportunity for all these companies to come and check out what Cambria is and the circumstances here.”
He said he’d “gotten my hands on a saw and learned how to down a tree, talked about fuel loading and tree mortality, things to look out for, safety hazards.”
Salas also said he’d learned “how to work with different companies, how to sharpen my skills up on progressive hose lays” and other techniques … and “ultimately what to do to save the community.”