Firefighters gear up fast for coming fire season

FIRE FINDERS. Above, Bill Roth of San Martin, assistant tower chief for CAL FIRE's VIP (Volunteer in Fire Prevention) program, demonstrates how the lookouts determine the location of a distant fire using an azimuthal locator map. The equipment is housed i

GILROY—Firefighters from the mountains to the flatlands of Santa Clara County are gearing up for what some predictions say could be a particularly nasty fire season, driven by water shortages, tinder-like wild lands and Red Flag conditions—those perfect storms of ingredients that cause raging wildfires.

As conditions for fires have worsened, CAL FIRE, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, this past weekend staffed for the first time this season it’s fire observation tower atop the 4,300-foot Copernicus Peak at Mt. Hamilton, near Lick Observatory—and Gilroy Fire Department crews joined other departments in a Saratoga training exercise to better prepare them to battle raging wildfires that urgently threaten homes and lives.

The tower’s 360-degree view allows volunteer spotters to see on the clearest days from Sacramento to the Monterey Bay. They search for puffs of smoke and rely on their knowledge of the region’s terrain to phone in fires to the CAL FIRE command post in Morgan Hill. Spotter planes or trucks are then sent to investigate and call in firefighting crews and equipment if necessary.

“We basically have to know, terrain-wise, where everything is,”

said Guy Martin, one of 18 CAL FIRE Volunteers in Prevention trained to staff the tower for full-day shifts. In all, the VIP group numbers 50 persons.

He and the others are deployed mostly when the National Weather Service declares a Red Flag day, according to CAL FIRE spokesperson Pam Temmermand,

Fire Prevention Specialist II, of the agency’s Santa Clara unit.

A Red Flag indicates the combination of higher than normal temperatures, low humidity and off shore winds, winds blowing from the east, across California and to the ocean.

“You get those three conditions and it’s a good recipe for fires,” Temmermand said, adding that tower volunteers spotted the Metcalf fire on Sunday June 28, who days after the tower was staffed, and reported it to the CAL FIRE Emergency Command Center.

Volunteers work in pairs in the tiny towers, which are equipped to withstand high winds and foul weather. Their basic instruments are binoculars and a firefinder, an old-school-like device that gives degree readings to pinpoint fire locations when combined with the spotter’s knowledge of terrain.

“I am looking to the east right now,” Martin said in a phone call Friday from the tower. “If something started in the San Antonio Valley, by the time they launch a helicopter or spotter plane the smoke would be big enough for them to see it. Then we’d talk by radio to help guide them in.”

The number of fires volunteers detect yearly varies from 10 to more than two dozen, “depending on the weather,” said Martin, a software director when not volunteering.

“It’s very surreal up here when we see weather systems come through, we see a lightening strike and a puff of smoke off in the distance and by that time we have our full air attack resources out there.”

“We do have to be careful (about lightening),” he said. “We have insulated chairs.”

In spite of the danger of lightning, high winds and pounding rain, Martin said, “I have never felt unsafe up here.”

In the meantime, other firefighters also are preparing for a tough and dangerous summer.

In Saratoga, Gilroy firefighters were in a training exercise this week, hauling water lines and responding to mock fires with other fire agencies, preparing for wildfires that could threaten homes and require urgency.

Four Gilroy firefighters and GFD’s wildland engine took part in the exercise held at Saratoga County Park. The training tests firefighters’ ability to respond to blazes in areas with the least access in real-time, and manage equipment and crews, all in conjunction with South Santa Clara County Fire, CAL FIRE and other Bay Area fire crews.

For two months, Gilroy firefighters also have trained in Gilroy to handle the new fire season, said GFD Division Chief Mary Gutierrez.

“We prepare for a busy fire season every year, no matter what,” she said. “Now we can take that knowledge and training gained over the past six weeks and put it to use with the rest of the county.”

Standing over the “sandbox,” a training tool, a firefighter lit a small blaze on a self-contained diorama of the area to simulate a car fire that spread to the hills and threatened homes. Other firefighters carried model airplanes and helicopters in their hands, dumping water on the fire and coordinating the response on the ground via radio.

It’s all a test of training and how well firefighters handle quick sparking and spreading blazes in the country.

“This could be Eagle Ridge. This could be Country Estates,” said Tim Pierce, a 15-year veteran and medic with the GFD, during the sandbox exercise.

Firefighters trained for what Pierce called the “worst case scenario,” a wildfire that spreads to vegetation nearby and threatens residents and homes due in part to the perfect storm caused by the recent heat wave and winds.

“You need to be able to react quickly to a change in weather,” Pierce said. “We’re in a heat wave right now and we have to be in tune with the weather.”

A few hours later, he hauled a water line up a hill to reach a simulated fire 10 feet from a residence in the Saratoga hills. He connected the hose to an engine and carried it to the epicenter, extinguishing hot spots.

In the event of a real fire, it takes on-the-spot thinking and coherent coordination between multiple fire agencies like CAL FIRE and South Santa Clara County Fire, Pierce said. “We’ve been training very closely with CAL FIRE,” Gutierrez added.
But it hasn’t just been training. Over the past two months, Gilroy firefighters put out two wild land fires, aided by CAL FIRE crews and planes.