As emergency crews rush to combat the growing number of wildfires ripping through California, San Mateo County fire departments have stepped up and dispatched 55 firefighters across the state since Sunday.
The county has sent out a total of 22 vehicles, including 16 fire engines, as part of three strike teams, said San Mateo Fire Chief Mike Keefe, who oversees operations for San Mateo, Belmont and Foster City.
Two San Mateo County strike teams, each comprised of five fire engines and two chiefs, were sent to the Little Deer Fire in Siskiyou County north of Redding, which as of 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, had scorched about 5,300 acres and was 60 percent contained, Keefe said.
There are 14 fires in the drought-stricken state, in Siskiyou County, Mendocino County and by Yosemite National Park and most San Mateo County fire departments are contributing to disaster response efforts.
California is unique and well-versed in pooling resources to combat disasters, said Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman. The master mutual aid system is a type of shared services agreement between the California Office of Emergency Services, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service and counties and fire agencies, Schapelhouman said.
San Mateo County has been the beneficiary of efforts such as these, most poignantly during the San Bruno explosion and fire in 2010, Schapelhouman said. Per an agreement with the state, Schapelhouman said his department is reimbursed $375 per hour for an engine that’s sent on a strike team mission.
“The master mutual aid system for the state creates the biggest fire station in the world. When everything’s in play, it’s pretty seamless, it’s pretty powerful,” Schapelhouman said. “It takes all the individual agencies in the state and allows us to cooperate and work together. … It’s a very powerful instrument that you can scale up or down depending on what you need to happen.”
The county’s participation also involved sending seven individual overhead employees, which could include dispatchers or line medics responsible for providing medical care to the active firefighters.
Keefe said firefighters are also being sent in preparation for potential fires and to backfill stations that have sent out teams.
With forecasted lighting storms increasing the chance of more fires, a third strike team left San Mateo County on Monday and was on its way to Mendocino County on Tuesday, Keefe said.
Firefighters from Millbrae, Central County, Foster City, San Bruno, San Mateo, Half Moon Bay, Brisbane, Daly City, Redwood City and South San Francisco fire departments have been dispatched to the Little Deer fire and could stay anywhere from one to three weeks, Keefe said.
Firefighters from Belmont, Menlo Park, Redwood City, Woodside and County Fire will be on guard in Mendocino, Keefe said.
Departments keep a close eye on statewide conditions and, once the call is received, firefighters gear up go where they are needed, Keefe said.
“This has become part of the fire service for the state of California. We respond and are called to assist outside jurisdictions in their times of need,” Keefe said. “We’re happy to be able to help whatever community needs it. … California is second to none, to be able to mobilize help and we do it frequently and we’re very good at it.”
Firefighters throughout each department, regardless if they’re not being physically dispatched to other parts of the state, also contribute during times of need by working during their off days, Keefe said.
“At the end of the day, our mission is to still adequately staff our individual organizations in the county so the public, for the most part, it’s seamless. They don’t feel losing 16 engines and within an hour, having them re-staffed,” Keefe said.
Keefe and Schapelhouman said assignments such as these allow for department staff to receive further training hours and this set of strike teams have a second chief assigned to each.
Fighting wildfires versus responding to calls in a more urban environment are different, however, modern firefighter training is extremely thorough, Schapelhouman said.
Although each strike team assignment is unique, firefighters often abandon their typical schedules and could be on duty for 72 hours straight, Keefe said.
“Tactically, they’re certainly different. There’s different considerations, different hazards. Typically, wildfires are a long duration so you have to plan what you’re doing over multiple operation periods. It’s a much longer fight and you have to think in those terms,” Keefe said.
Teams come equipped with sleeping supplies and can often be set up on cots for days, Keefe said. With the statewide drought expected to continue, county response teams will continue to be on the lookout, Keefe said.
“We’re on heightened awareness this year with the drought conditions and with the little rain and fire activity we’re experiencing and seeing out there throughout the state,” Keefe said. “So when a call comes, we’ve been preparing for it. … So they get themselves mentally and physically ready and they go.”
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