With this summer's devastating wildfires in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah, fire officials are encouraging Mountain Area residents to be as vigilant as ever in removing flammable vegetation within 100-feet of their homes to help prevent such a catastrophe in Madera County.
With Madera County foothill and mountain topography and dry vegetation, mixed with high temperatures and at times windy conditions, the potential for a dangerous wildland fire in the area is extremely high according to Karen Guillemin, Cal Fire public information officer.
"It is not too late for homeowners to create a defensible space around their homes which is essential for increasing your home's chance of surviving a wildfire," Guillemin said.
But she cautions residents to be vigilant while working in these dry summer time conditions. Work only before 10 a.m. to build your defensible space, make sure you have a water source near by and never use metal blades in or around dry vegetation. Lawn mowers were built to mow green lawns not dry or dead weeds and native grass.
The first line of defense against wildland fires in the foothill and Mountain Area of Madera County are the firefighters employed by Cal Fire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection -- formerly known as CDF), Madera County Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service.
Firefighters are well trained and prepared
No one is more aware of the potential danger of a wildland fire than the firefighters themselves who are well prepared to battle blazes when called upon.
David Irion, Cal Fire and Madera County Division Chief, said Cal Fire firefighters and Madera County volunteer/paid call firefighters (PCFs) have all had wildland, structure and auto extrication, hazardous materials, first aid and CPR training.
Cal Fire firefighters undergo 67 hours of training in wildland fires and routinely train on their equipment doing hose lays, pumping operations, ladder drills, chain saw drills, hand line construction and self-contained breathing apparatus drills," Irion said.
He added Cal Fire firefighters routinely do aerobic and weight training to stay in shape and to prevent injury on the job.
Irion added that Cal Fire's extraordinary quick response to emergencies is due to it's emergency network, command structure and equipment.
"We have a high success rate in getting fires out as quickly as possible and that is due to the highly trained fire personnel that respond when called," Irion said.
An example of efficiency was a June 27 nine-acre vegetation fire in O'Neals. Cal Fire and Madera County personnel were dispatched, along with two air tankers, 10 engines with three firefighters on each, two 17-man hand crews, a water tender, one helicopter, two bulldozers and a spotter plane within two minutes of the initial report of the fire. The first engine, travelling 8.4 miles from Station 8 Indian Lakes, arrived at the fire in 11 minutes after receiving the call.
"Everyone responded as separate pieces of the puzzle and fit together perfectly on the fire line," Guillemin said. "Firefighters were able to get a hose line around the fire and stop its progress very quickly. The crews worked seamlessly to provide a fantastic stop to this fire."
"The goal is to control all wildland fires to 10 acres or less," said Fire Captain Troy Cheek with the Cal Fire Ahwahnee station. "Our philosophy is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best."
Command Center coordinates efforts
All fire protection efforts in Madera, Mariposa and Merced counties are coordinated at the Cal Fire Emergency Command Center (ECC) in Mariposa. It's usually a 911 call to law enforcement that sets first responders in motion. Depending on the type of emergency, the 911 operator makes the determination to send the call to the appropriate law enforcement, fire and ambulance service. Many calls are reported to multiple agencies.
Staffed 24/7, 10 communication operators rotate through two 12-hour shifts daily at the Cal Fire Command Center. The ECC is staffed every shift with one fire captain and three communication operators.
The command center is equipped with state of the art computers and radio equipment that provide communication operators the information that determines the amount and type of equipment and personnel to call out for an incident according to Cal Fire Captain Gene Potkey.
"The amount of equipment to dispatch and what resources are available is built into the computer program," Potkey explained. "The CAD (computer assisted dispatching) system is built by Northrop Grumman, the same company that builds the on-board computers for military jet planes."
Potkey said there are three levels of fire readiness that dictate the amount of equipment that is dispatched to a fire.
Incidents are classified from a low of Level 1, which calls for three fire engines to respond, to Level 3, which calls for 10 engines, two air tankers, two helicopters, a air spotter plane, two bulldozers and two battalion chiefs to oversee the operation.
The levels are based on size of the fire when first reported and current weather conditions taking into account temperature, humidity in the air and wind conditions.
"The levels are closely monitored and what could be a Level 1 in the early morning could change to a Level 2 by 10 a.m. and move to a Level 3 by 2 p.m.,"said Cal Fire Apparatus Engineer Frank Bigelow, Jr. who works out of the Ahwahnee station.
"We know at all times what equipment and personnel is available for a fire and exactly where crews are if they are out on a call," Potkey said.
Communications operator Tori Keith, has been directing fire and other emergency traffic full time for 11 years. Prior to Cal Fire she served 10 years as a search and rescue volunteer in Mariposa County and spent two years as a dispatcher for the Mariposa County Sheriff's Department.
When on duty, Keith dispatches for Madera and Mariposa counties and Mercy Ambulance in Mariposa.
"This job is the definition of multi tasking," Keith said. "You have to focus and pay attention to the radios, phones and all the units you have in the field."
She said often 25 to 30 people will call the command center to report the same fire, not realizing other people have called in.
"Of course we have to take every single call because you don't know when one of the calls could be for a new fire or another emergency," Keith said.
Keith said she likes helping the community while working behind the scenes.
"I like the anonymity of the job while helping people."
One of the largest fires she worked was the July 2008 Telegraph Fire near Midpines north of Mariposa which scorched more than 34,000 acres and destroyed 30 homes over a two-week period. Keith was one of 336 people dedicated to the fire that was started by a person target shooting and cost $37.6 million dollars to suppress.
"Everyone was working 16 to 18 hours a day during that fire," Keith said. "When I got a break I slept on the floor under the counsel for four or five hours and then back to work."
Potkey was a Fire Captain at the Mariposa Cal Fire Station for six years and this is his first season in the Emergency Command Center.
"This job has given me a different perspective on fire fighting," Potkey said. "I now have a greater appreciation for what our Emergency Command Center communication operators do. At times they are prioritizing four to six calls and tracking our resources all at the same time."
Firefighting comes with a steep price
On Thursday, July 5, a fire 100 yards off Highway 41 north of Road 208, burned 10 acres of vegetation before being extinguished by air tankers and ground crews. After an investigation, it was determined the fire was intentionally set. The next day, Tad Patrick Moore, 48, of Hollywood, was arrested for arson by a Madera County Sheriff's deputy.
The efforts by firefighters to save lives and property comes with a steep price and Moore could be held responsible for the cost of suppressing the fire.
Although the cost of putting that fire out was not available from Cal Fire, the cost of air tankers, helicopters and fire engines and ground crews quickly adds up.
To send out an S2 air tanker carrying 12,000 gallons of fire retardant based at Fresno International Airport costs $2,750 an hour. Tankers based in Columbia, Porterville and Hollister can be called to assist as needed.
A helicopter with pilot, fire captain and up to eight firefighters costs $1,600 an hour and a fixed-wing spotter airplane is $750 an hour. A fire engine with a three-man crew costs $2,871 an hour. A water tender and a bulldozer costs $1,440 and $3,167 an hour respectfully.
Fire stations at peak staffing for summer
All Cal Fire stations in the foothill and Mountain Area are currently at peak staffing.
Three Cal Fire stations -- Ahwahnee, Coarsegold and Rancheria (North Fork) -- have two engines and are staffed with six firefighters. The Bass Lake and Raymond Cal Fire stations have one engine and three firefighters each at the ready.
Madera County fire stations 8 and 12 (Indian Lakes and Oakhurst) are staffed by Cal Fire under an agreement with Madera County. Station 12 also has paid call firefighters.
Madera County fire stations exclusively staffed by volunteers (paid call firefighters) include Coarsegold 13, Ahwahnee 16, Raymond 15, Yosemite Lakes Park 10, O'Neals 17, North Fork 11, Bass Lake 14, Cedar Valley 18 and Fish Camp 33 (Mariposa County).
Cal Fire and Madera County fire stations are primarily responsible for emergency services for private property, while U.S. Forest Service stations mainly protect U.S forest property and structures on that property as needed.
U.S. Forest Service stations are located at Batterson north of Oakhurst, Westfall south of Fish Camp, Douglas south of North Fork, and Clearwater at Kinsman Flat above North Fork.
The need for volunteer/PCFs in Madera County is more critical now than ever.
Jerry Riggs is the captain of Madera County Fire Station 16 in Ahwahnee and has served as a volunteer firefighter for nearly 40 years. Although he currently has 10 firefighters on his roster, he says often it's just him and maybe one or two other volunteers responding to a call.
He says it is not that the volunteers don't want to help, it's the fact that they have full time jobs or are out of town at the time of the call.
Riggs said the Ahwahnee station had 20 volunteers 10 to 15 years ago.
"Many of our volunteers/PCFs work and have family and community commitments throughout the week, but still respond when available," Irion said. "We are willing to work with each PCF on their specific availability as long as they are committed to the Madera County Fire Department."
Although the Madera County Fire Department currently has about 160 PCFs county-wide, only about half of them routinely respond to calls due to work and other commitments according to Irion.
"We need more PCFs to routinely respond," Irion said.
The time commitment for training is extensive. Each volunteer must receive first aid, EMT, fire and hazardous material training.
The 240 hours of training, required by the state, takes a minimum of four months of night classes and some weekends and volunteers are not paid for training.
Irion realizes the time commitment is challenging, but still encourages men and women in the county to apply to become a volunteer firefighter.
"We are always in need of people interested in helping the community and becoming part of our fire family," Irion said.
Guillemin says if you feel that becoming a paid call firefighter is just not for you but you still have the ability and desire to help the community, consider becoming a member of a volunteer auxiliary. Delivering drinks, supplies and meals to the firefighters during an incident is a vital element.