SoCal fire evacuates thousands

A wildfire fueled by gusty Santa Ana winds raced across rural land southeast of Los Angeles and has forced 4,000 people from their homes. The Highland Fire started not long after noon Monday in dry brushy hills near the community of Aguanga in Riverside County, about 60 miles south of Palm Springs. The Associated Press reported today that the fire has grown to 3½ square miles, or 2200 acres with zero containment.

Cal Fire reported that resources included 5 airtankers and 5 helicopters, along with 52 engine companies and 6 ground crews.

NBC Los Angeles reported that evacuation orders are in effect for thousands after the fire doubled in size overnight.

The brush fire started Monday in the Aguanga area of Riverside County, about 60 miles southwest of Palm Springs.

Cal Fire PIO map:

Cal Fire evacuation maps, Highland Fire
Cal Fire evacuation maps, Highland Fire. The fire doubled in size to more than 2,200 acres by Tuesday morning. Thousands of people were under evacuation orders, which were updated early Tuesday.

KTLA5 has video from yesterday:

At least 1,300 homes and 4,000 residents were under evacuation orders, which were still in effect this morning. The fire burned across a sparsely populated area that includes horse ranches and a large mobile home site; Cal Fire said this morning that only 15 or so homes were threatened.

Southern California Edison was reportedly looking into cutting power to nearly 150,000 customers in six counties — to prevent new starts from downed trees or wind-damaged electrical equipment — but fewer than 300 customers thus far were affected by power shutoffs.

The NWS issued a wind advisory for the region through Tuesday night, predicting winds of 15 to 25 mph and gusts up to 50 mph, particularly in the foothills and adjacent valleys.

These are the first major Santa Anas of the season; the strong, hot, dry, dust-bearing winds typically blow down to the coastal areas from inland desert regions in the fall. Santa Ana winds have fueled some of the largest and most devastating wildfires in California history.

An updated evacuation map from Cal Fire is [HERE].

Cal Fire ready for its highest-risk time of the year

As many fire crews across North America are ending their official wildfire seasons, Cal Fire is now gearing up for its most at-risk time of the year.

Seven of California’s top 20 most destructive wildfires (“most destructive” meaning fires that resulted in the most structures destroyed or lives lost), over the years have occurred in the month of October. The top three on the list after the November 2018 Camp Fire, all burned in October, including the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm (with the Tunnel Fire), and the 2003 Cedar Fire.

Plus of course the October 2006 Esperanza Fire.

On the morning of October 20, 1991, towering clouds of black smoke blocked out the sun as “diablo winds” whipped flames hot enough to melt gold throughout the hills above Oakland and Berkeley.
On the morning of October 20, 1991, fearsome Diablo winds whipped flames hot enough to melt gold across the hills above Oakland and Berkeley.

Cooling temperatures and incoming moisture often provide relief to much of the country during early autumn, but conditions in especially dry parts of California can blow up wildfire risk in the state thanks to a combination of summer’s dry vegetation and fall’s fierce winds.

“It is a common misconception that the most dangerous time for fires in California is during July and August,” according to the Western Fire Chiefs Association website. “While there may be fewer fires in September and October, the fires that do occur are far more destructive and burn through many more acres.”

October 2006, en route to the Esperanza, photo by Laguna IHC.
October 2006, en route to the Esperanza Fire, photo by Laguna IHC.

This explosive wildfire situation is caused mainly by a combination of dry vegetation from hot summer weather and the intense dry winds that blow over California fires in the fall.

Known as the Santa Ana winds in southern California and the Diablo winds in northern California, they’re characterized by downslope gusts blowing from the mountains toward the coast. Despite their different names, the winds are caused by similar autumn weather patterns, differing mostly by their locations — the Santa Anas in the south blow down from the Santa Ana Mountains, while the Diablos  in northern California blow from the Diablo Range. 

Oakland Hills 1991
1991 Oakland Hills firestorm. View of the fires above the Claremont Hotel on October 20, 1991. Oakland local wiki pages.

And while these autumn winds now build in the state, some areas are still benefiting from the record-breaking wet winter across the Southwest at the beginning of 2023. Crews in the Santa Cruz area reportedly had to start their season late since the ground was too wet to conduct planned prescribed burns.

“Because it was so moist, my burn crews were not available until early July,” Sarah Collamer, forester and Cal Fire burn boss, told KSBW. “We usually burn in June, but it was too wet.”

As we head into October, we’ll see who wins in the perennial battle between seasonal dry winds and the unseasonal wet ground.

CAL FIRE to add more firefighters, engines, dozers, and helicopters

Will add 1,503 personnel, 27 engines, 4 helicopters, and 10 dozers

CAL FIRE dozer and transport
File photo of a new dozer and transport for the Nevada Yuba Placer Unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. CAL FIRE photo, March, 2019.

The new budget for California signed into law June 30 by Governor Gavin Newsom includes a massive increase for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2022.

The budget authorizes 11,293 positions, a 13 percent increase of 1,503 personnel. 

To add to the 12 new S70i Firehawk helicopters that were funded a couple of years ago, they will spend $99 million to purchase an additional 4 to help maintain continuous flight operations during critical fire weather conditions when frontline helicopters are due for maintenance. 

In addition, $45 million is set aside annually for the next three years to secure exclusive use (EU) contracts for 10 additional helitankers while awaiting the federal delivery of seven former Coast Guard C-130 air tankers that over the last 9 years have been waiting for the US Air Force to convert them into retardant-dropping air tankers.

CAL FIRE Director Joe Tyler told Fire Aviation in March that the incorporation of the seven former Coast Guard C-130 aircraft into the state’s air tanker fleet might be pushed back to 2024 due the pandemic/endemic and supply chain issues. This is in spite of the agency’s efforts in attempting to facilitate movement in the project. He said they had hoped to see some of the C-130s flying on fires this year. CAL FIRE is working with the Coast Guard, the Air Force, and the contractor who will install the retardant delivery system, Coulson Aviation.

California Conservation Corps (CCC) and California Military Department (CMD) Hand Crews 
Appropriated is $104 million and 238 positions starting now, and $50 million and 270 positions phased in over five years. Eight additional year-round hand crews will be added and 16 seasonal hand crews will be converted to year-round.

Four existing seasonal CAL FIRE/CCC hand crews will convert to year-round staffing in July 2022 and the personnel for the remaining two transitioned seasonal hand crews will be hired beginning January 2023. On these hand crews, two temporary Fire Captains (FC) per hand crew are replaced by three permanent FCs and three new FAEs are added to each hand crew. In total, 18 FCs and 18 FAEs will staff all six hand crews.

Ten existing seasonal CMD hand crews will be converted to year-round and four year-round CMD hand crews will be added for statewide response and fuels reduction projects.

Engines and Dozers
$36 million will be used to acquire surge capacity fire engines and bulldozers. This will add two additional engines in each of the 21 Units and six contract counties, plus 10 additional bulldozers. These resources will be available to be staffed during times of resource drawdown and critical fire activity.

Approximately $9 million will be used to hire support staff for the Firehawk program and positions for the contract EU helicopters,

July through December Fire Protection Augmentation
One-time funding of $83.1 million General Fund is available to augment fire protection resources from July through December 2022 given trends associated with climate change and current drought conditions, increasing fire severity and size, and declining inmate camp populations. It will be used to extend the staffing of 16 additional CAL FIRE firefighter hand crews through December 2022, plus support staff and training.

Highlights from the 1977 CDF Fire Control Handbook

Looking back 45 years at large fire organization charts, “support teams”, and hair requirements in California

CDF Fire Control Handbook, 1977
Cover of the 1977 California Department of Forestry Fire Control Handbook.

Chief John Hawkins shared with us a copy of the California Department of Forestry’s Fire Control Handbook, 1977 edition. The agency was known as CDF before they became the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE.

It is a .pdf copy of Handbook 5600 with a few amendments around 1979 and 1980 to address the agency’s limited trial of the Incident Command System (ICS) in their Region VI starting in 1978, and the planned California-wide implementation of the ICS in 1983. The entire document can be downloaded here  (large 10.2 Mb file).

Firefighters of a certain age will most likely enjoy skimming through the pages of this 45-year old document.

CDF 1977 Fire Control Handbook
From page 51 in the CDF 1977 Fire Control Handbook, amended December, 1980.

The 324-page book contains many operational guides, as well as information about aviation, safety, pre-attack planning, “support teams”, and flood control operations. Much of it is timeless, but there have also been many changes. It is interesting to compare the 45-year old policies with current procedures.

But going back even further, let’s take a look at fire organizations before ICS began to be adopted in the 1980s:

forest fire organization, forest service, 1953
Two-Sector Fire. From Principles of Organization for Forest Fire Suppression, US Forest Service, 1953.
Organization on the, Battlement Creek Fire, July 1976
Organization on the Battlement Creek Fire, July, 1976. From the report.

My career was with the US Forest Service and National Park Service. The CDF organization from the Fire Control Handbook has at least one feature unfamiliar to me, the “Attack” function, which was called the Line Function by the USFS. It is now labeled “Operations” in the ICS. In the USFS it was led by a Line Boss in the pre-ICS days. “Service” became Logistics, and in the Planning section the Maps and Records Officer was replaced by two units, Resources Unit and Situation Unit. Sectors became Divisions, and a new position was inserted between the Planning Section Chief and Division Boss: Branch Director. There were numerous changes in Service/Logistics.

CDF Fire Organization Structure, 1979
CDF Fire Organization Structure, 1979.

And then there is the current Incident Command System structure; keep in mind, you only fill the positions that are needed.

Continue reading “Highlights from the 1977 CDF Fire Control Handbook”

CAL FIRE dealing with long shifts and mental health issues

Redding, CA sunset CAL FIRE engines.
Sunset in Redding, California, August 10, 2014. A strike team of CAL FIRE engines assigned to the Eiler Fire is in the foreground. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The federal land management agencies are not the only agencies facing problems with retention, recruitment, and mental health issues. The staffing system for the  California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, calls for their firefighters to work 72 hours a week. But in recent years vacant positions have sometimes led to personnel being forced to work overtime, sometimes for many days at a time, 24 hours a day.

CAL FIRE 2881 President Tim Edwards represents nearly 5,400 CAL FIRE firefighters. He told CBS13 shifts that used to be 72 hours a week have become 30, 40, or 50 days without a break. Crews, he said, are unable to be relieved because of the short staffing.

A bill has been drafted that would appropriate $220 million to increase staffing and reduce forced overtime. If passed by California’s legislature the Fixing The Firefighter Shortage Act, SB 1062, would fund more than 1,100 additional  state firefighters, 18 more engine crews, and a year-long study to figure out staffing needs in the future.

A CAL FIRE spokesperson told CBS13 three weeks ago that stations would be fully staffed in a week. The spokesperson added the agency does not endorse the Fixing The Firefighter Shortage Act, and that it is only supported by CAL FIRE Local 2881.

In 2009 a series of articles about wildland fire won a Pulitzer Prize for authors Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times. Ms. Cart who now works for CAL MATTERS wrote a piece last week for the publication about how PTSD is affecting CAL FIRE’s workforce. The video below posted June 15 appears to be a product of their reporting.

Ms. Cart points out that about 10 percent of CAL FIRE’s workforce quit last year.

Below is an excerpt from the article.

California’s firefighting agency has been slow to react to a mounting mental health crisis within its ranks as firefighters around the state say CAL FIRE has failed to get them what they need — including a sustainable workload, easier access to workers’ comp benefits and more counselors.

While climate change is driving enduring drought and ferocious fires ravaging California, nature can’t be blamed for all of CAL FIRE’s problems: The state’s fire service, which prides itself in quickly putting out wildfires, has failed to extinguish a smoldering mental health problem among its ranks.

Many firefighters told CalMatters they are fatigued and overwhelmed, describing an epidemic of post-traumatic stress in their fire stations. Veterans say they are contemplating leaving the service, which would deplete the agency of their decades of experience. Some opened up about their suicidal thoughts, while others — an unknown number since CAL FIRE doesn’t track it — already have taken their own lives.

New Director of CAL FIRE said they may have up to 10 additional helicopters in 2022

Director Joe Tyler, during his first interview since he started the job

CAL FIRE Director Joe Tyler
CAL FIRE Director Joe Tyler making the keynote address at the Aerial Firefighting conference in San Diego, March 22, 2022. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(This article was first published at Fire Aviation)

In his first interview since he started as the new Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Joe Tyler told Fire Aviation on Wednesday that the state of California could have up to 10 additional firefighting helicopters in 2022 to assist firefighters on the ground.

Director Tyler said the current approved budget enables CAL FIRE to issue 120-day exclusive use contracts, based on fire potential, for up to three large air tankers, eight Type 1 helicopters, two Type 2 helicopters, and two lead planes. That budget authority lasts until the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2022 and the Director’s staff is working on implementing the option now. The Governor’s proposed budget for the following fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022 includes exclusive use contract funding over the next three years for 10 Type 1 helicopters, but that budget has not yet been passed by the legislature.

CAL FIRE also has access to a San Diego County Type one helicopter through a cooperative agreement.

These numbers are in addition to the 10 helicopters already operated by CAL FIRE.

Director Tyler told Fire Aviation that he was offered the Director position on March 3 and he started the next day. He is overseeing an appropriated budget of $3.7 billion and more than 9,600 civilian and uniformed staff who responded to more than half a million emergencies in 2021. His predecessor, Thom Porter, retired in December.

Director Tyler is a 31-year veteran of CAL FIRE and most recently served as the Deputy Director of Fire Protection, overseeing statewide fire protection operations and cooperative fire protection. He began his career with CAL FIRE in 1991 working in several counties and programs throughout California and has an extensive background in executive level operations and programs. Prior to his appointment as Deputy Director, Tyler served as the Assistant Deputy Director of Fire Protection with oversight of law enforcement/civil cost recovery, fire protection operations, aviation management, tactical air operations, and mobile equipment.

“It is my commitment to take care of our people,” Director Tyler said in the interview Wednesday. “The health and wellness of the people who work for us are of utmost importance. As I have said to our people, they are our greatest asset.”

Director Tyler said the incorporation of the seven former Coast Guard C-130 aircraft into the state’s air tanker fleet might be pushed back to 2024 due the pandemic/endemic and supply chain issues. This is in spite of the agency’s efforts in attempting to facilitate movement in the project. He said they had hoped to see some of the C-130s flying on fires this year. CAL FIRE is working with the Coast Guard, the Air Force, and the contractor who will install the retardant delivery system, Coulson Aviation.

“We have working groups that meet weekly between those groups to determine where we are at in status and we have executive steering committees that meet quarterly,” the Director said. “The last update that was just given to us in this last month, was that Coulson Aviation working with the United States Air Force and their engineers were going through the preliminary design review of the retardant delivery system and things were looking good to be able to continue to move forward.”