First responders prepare for a potentially dangerous summer

A firefighter with the Cal Fire Madera-Marposa-Merced Unit sets a portion of Eastman Lake’s grassland ablaze during a live fire training session on May 24.
A firefighter with the Cal Fire Madera-Marposa-Merced Unit sets a portion of Eastman Lake’s grassland ablaze during a live fire training session on May 24. Sierra Star

While a powerful winter has created beautiful sights in Yosemite National Park and across the Mountain Area, it’s also led to a one-two punch for state and county emergency workers.

As the Sierra Nevada snow pack, at nearly 200% of average, continues to melt, the runoff has created roaring rivers, streams, and an abundant crop of dried grass and brush, ready for a spark.

To prepare, Cal Fire’s Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit (MMU), and the Madera County Search & Rescue Team (SAR), have recently conducted extensive training exercises to ensure they’re ready in the case of disasters.

Fighting fire with fire

Troy Cheek, MMU battalion chief, watched as firefighters do something most might consider unusual - purposely set dry grass ablaze at Eastman Lake, west of Raymond.

Armed with at least 25 pounds of equipment, some with torches, shovels, and masks, the responders walked in grass several feet high, stopping periodically to set another spark as high winds rapidly carried the blaze uphill behind them.

Cheek said there was a reason for the flames.

“This is about learning firing methods and techniques,” Cheek said during the training, held May 22 and 24. “It’s all about how to fight fire with fire, so you can clear the fuels away from any oncoming blaze.”

A live fire demonstration hasn’t been held by the MMU since 2004, Cheek said, so the exercise, on 170 acres, allowed more than 100 firefighters a rare opportunity to learn how fire behaves and how to create a kind of buffer by burning out fuels.

“Grass fires are definitely going to be more dangerous than they have been the last five years,” said Cheek, adding the training took more than a year to plan. “So this is very important because they hardly ever get to have that live fire experience. Now that we get the true environment, the heat, the fuels, you get to see what it’s actually going to be like so you can anticipate what fires will do in the summer.”

“You never get to have this kind of experience, so it’s going to be a huge benefit for us,” said Shaun Fairbanks, a captain at Cal Fire Station 13 in Coarsegold. “This is giving us a good look at what we should prepare for this summer.”

Another method covered during the two days of training was mobile attack, where an engine drives through or around burning vegetation, with a firefighter walking along while using a hose to put out the flames.

“This year we thought it was important to put a strong emphasis on mobile attack,” Cheek said. “We mobile attack more than we use firing techniques, but those are starting to become a lost art. It’s good we can get these firefighters training on the techniques now, rather than wait until we need them.”

On June 12, Cheek said Cal Fire will transition into peak fire season, with around 100 firefighters staffed at 11 stations across the MMU.

Rushing waters

As for waterways, this year has already been dangerous across the Central Valley, and the Madera County Search & Rescue Team is undergoing rope and dive training to prepare.

So far, six people have drowned in Tulare County, and three in Fresno County, which forced their respective sheriffs to close down sections of the Tule and Kings rivers.

Madera County Sheriff’s Sgt. Joseph Wilder, who oversees the SAR team, said he hasn’t seen any such cases despite record water flows.

“We’ve had some problems with Chiquita Creek, at the Cascadel waterfall and at Angel Falls in Bass Lake,” Wilder said. “But nothing deadly so far. So we’re kind of just bracing ourselves and waiting to see what happens.”

Wilder said to prepare, dive and rope crews undergo 10 hours of training a month, with a focus on how to rescue those who become trapped in swift water.

A lot of the training is on basic rope rigging, such as how to set up a main rope system and a safety line, Wilder said. But more simple techniques, like how to throw a rope to another team member, are covered as well.

Wilder said because Madera County’s waterways are, as a whole, more rocky and hazardous compared to other counties, they require more technical rope training and sometimes outside assistance by short haul helicopter from the CHP, which was needed to save a boy who got trapped at Angel Falls last September.

To stay safe this summer, Wilder offered a simple suggestion.

“Stay out of the water, it’s as simple as that,” Wilder said. “With flows the way they are, and with the low temperature in the water, it doesn’t take long for a dangerous situation to turn deadly. If you’re going to have fun, go to a safe recreation area and make sure to wear a life jacket.”

Yosemite rescues

Also, in Yosemite National Park, rangers are undergoing water rescue training as the Merced River continues to surge.

Rangers conducted a Swift Water Rescue Training/Water Safety Day on the Merced River in Yosemite Valley on May 25. This training was conducted to train park rangers on rescue techniques and to educate the public on potential dangers related to swift and high water conditions.

With the record snow pack this year, rivers in Yosemite are running very fast and very cold, which pose a potential danger to park visitors. People are asked to stay a safe distance from rivers during spring runoff, which is expected to last several more weeks.