Thu10022014

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Local firefighters join Rim Fire strike teams


Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Firefighters practice their wildland fire skills earlier this year at the El Monte Station in Los Altos Hills. Although there have been no major local fires in 2013, crew members dispatched to the Rim Fire and fires in Southern California over the summer.

As the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park raged out of control last month, firefighters from Los Altos Hills’ El Monte and Loyola fire stations were deployed to the field to assist.

“We had a totally different frame of mind for this fire,” said El Monte Station Battalion Chief Ron Vega, who served as a strike team leader trainee alongside other Santa Clara County Fire Department firefighters on Route 108, just west of the 385-square-mile fire. “The Stanislaus National Forest fire was moving so fast and was so large that we needed Type 1 (the best-equipped) fire engines.”

Vega is a member of one of several predesignated teams in Santa Clara County ready to respond to large emergencies “wherever and whenever.” There have not been any major local fires this year, Vega said, but a team from the county was mobilized to a wildland fire in Southern California in May, which prepared them for their role in fighting the Rim Fire, California’s third largest fire on record.

When his strike team, a collection of five engines under one leader, was called into action in the communities of Pinecrest and Tuolumne, they mobilized as they would for a fire in Los Altos or Los Altos Hills.

Although his team is trained and equipped with the tools to battle on the fire line, they were assigned the role of securing the safety of communities in the path of the expanding fire.

“When we arrived, (the fire) was two ridges over from the community,” Vega said of the threat the hovering fires posed to Tuolumne and other communities. “We had a boss to report to with basic objectives, and my job as strike team leader trainee was to put the plan in place.”

Instilling peace of mind

Working 24-hour cycles – one day on, one day off – his team quickly acclimated to local conditions, including the geography, topography, water systems and area roads, to assess the risk and determine the best procedures to protect structures and preempt fire growth. Prepared to defend the community should the fire reach them, Vega said his team also served as “peacekeepers” and “information keepers” in the communities.

“A lot of that was keeping the public informed, being out there and being seen,” he said.

While enforcing evacuation orders, his team often engaged concerned property owners and attempted to instill peace of mind during the stressful situation.

After one week, the fire risk diminished and Vega’s strike team was removed from the field. Vega is back on duty at the El Monte Station, but four team members from local stations with specialized skills in communications, map making, documentation and resource management are still assigned to the Rim Fire containment efforts.

As of Monday, the cost of fighting the Rim Fire, which burned more than 250,000 acres and injured six, was $84.8 million.

Vega said the experience would better prepare local teams to handle future fires closer to home.

“It’s an opportunity for some on the team to get experience where they might not have been on this type of assignment before,” he said. “It’s different when you have to mobilize in an unknown community, move on the fly and put together a plan to keep a community safe.”

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