The firefighters who grace our cover this month represent our valley’s saving grace during the recent Buckweed and Magic fires.
When the blaze erupted in Canyon Country on the afternoon of October 21, firefighters were already doing their best to contain fires in Castaic and Malibu. The crews that initially responded worked 24- to 36-hour shifts for several days in what became an intense wind-driven fire, fueled by some of the driest vegetation in recorded history.
“The firefighters who work in the area understand the potential for fire. We prepare for this,” says Inspector Jason Hurd, spokesperson for Los Angeles County Fire Department. “But the conditions that we saw at the start were very extreme. We expect Santa Ana winds, but we experienced sustained winds of 60 to 90 miles per hour and gusts over 108 miles an hour on the mountain ridgelines.”
By the time the fires were contained, 38,356 acres had burned and 21 homes were lost. All of Santa Clarita Valley’s 174 firefighters were involved. Stephanie English, Community Services Liaison for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, points out that “the firefighters are very aggressive about protecting structures. Their expertise and commitment saved numerous structures, residences, businesses and schools.”
Hurd agrees, “Our firefighters did an outstanding job, along with L.A. County and the assisting agencies, to minimize the number of structures lost and the number of injuries. The conditions at hand could have caused more civilian and firefighter casualties. They did an amazing job keeping the fire out of our neighborhoods, working countless hours around the clock. It’s pretty remarkable.”
One of the losses of the Buckweed fire was that of the Heads-Up Ranch, a therapeutic riding program operated by Jim and Terri Tindell who live on the property with their two children, on Bouquet Canyon Road. The fire swept through the ranch destroying everything in its path. As Mr. Tindell was attempting to save the ranch and their horses, he got caught in the firestorm and suffered significant burns. He is still recovering at the Grossman’s Burn Center. To assist the Heads-Up Ranch and the Tindell family, a benefit account has been set up through the Newhall Optimist Club (see article on page 28). As an indication of our firefighters’ compassion and hometown attentiveness, Fire Station 111, located on Seco Canyon, has initiated a fund-raising event to which each firehouse in the Santa Clarita Valley is making a significant contribution.
Santa Clarita is protected by 13 stations that employ three to nine firefighters on three shifts. Our valley is unique in that a high percentage of those who work here also live here. English says, “Santa Clarita is a desirable community. Also, they choose stations based on what they hope to see for incidences. Here, they go on a lot brush fire calls. As a result, they’re technically able to respond quickly and efficiently.” Battalion Chief Bill Niccum adds, “The Santa Clarita Valley is known worldwide for its wildland fire activity, and we are fortunate to have some of the world’s best wildland firefighters work in the area.”
The response to the fast-moving fires was swift and put into effect the fire department’s elaborate plans to immediately augment staffing. Hurd explains, “As soon as the fire starts, we pull resources from unaffected areas. We have approximately 60 reserve fire engines in the county that are all staffed by off-duty personnel and used to cover stations. We are very concerned with keeping coverage for the regular calls that may come in.”
Additional support for fighting the fires came in all manner of equipment. Patrols with 150-gallon tank engines accessed places the larger engines couldn’t to hit spot fires and embers blowing in neighborhoods. Extra water tenders — 2,500-gallon water trucks — filled up engines when no hydrants were available, particularly in rural areas. Extra helicopters, extra bulldozers for cutting fire lines and extra camp or inmate crews were utilized. Every possible resource was called in to assist. At the height of the incident, 1,157 firefighters, 139 engine companies, 42 hand crews, 22 bulldozers, and various aircraft were assigned.
And it wasn’t over when the last flame was doused. While most firefighters returned to their stations, many days of “mop-up” followed. Hurd says, “Materials can smolder for up to a week. We work from the outside of the fire lines in. Anything burning on the inside has a lot farther to travel to the outside.” English says that it’s a little known, but important fact that “we kept a strike team of engines out there for several days afterwards to prevent flare-ups.” A Burned Area Emergency Response Team then begins its work in tandem with the U.S. Forest Service to monitor the area and provide any recommendations for rehabilitation and vegetation management for preparation for the rainy season.
Due to the extraordinarily dry conditions, Hurd is expecting fire season to extend well into January. “We’re seeing warm temperatures with low humidity and the return of the Santa Anas. We’re still in the middle of fire season until we get substantial and continued rains.”
Brush fires aren’t the only concern this time of year. English says, “We see more house fires in this season. Candles and dry, decorative trees can be very dangerous. Leaving food on the stove unattended — even for a quick visit next door — can create a problem.”
Yet the holiday season seems the perfect time to express our gratitude to our local heroes who, if asked, would maintain that they’re only doing their jobs. Their humility and bravery will be recognized at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital’s 22nd Annual Community Tree Lighting (see sidebar). Families are encouraged to attend.
Assistant Fire Chief for the Los Angeles County Fire Department E. Matt Gil applauds Santa Clarita residents for their preparedness and willingness to evacuate as well as their efforts to comply with brush clearance mandates. By being prepared and practicing prevention, residents made it possible for the firefighters to concentrate on the task at hand. Gil speaks for all of the firefighters when he says thank you to the residents, especially our younger ones, who sent thousands of hand-drawn cards expressing their appreciation.
The outpouring of gratitude during the fires themselves was evident throughout Santa Clarita as citizens brought the firefighters food, hotels offered rooms and businesses made donations. As much as we are thankful for their Herculean efforts, English says, “The community should know how grateful the firefighters were for the support.” She recounted a story of a strike team of five engines with three firefighters each walking into a local restaurant. Not only did people clap, but one resident bought every one of the crew lunch. “Things like that happened throughout the fires,” English says. “A heartfelt thank you goes back to this unique community, its residents and its businesses.”
Tree Lighting to
Honor Local Firefighters
This year, the major sponsors of the Annual Community Tree Lighting, Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital and the Health Foundation Boards of Directors, have elected to provide a message of appreciation to the California firefighters who so bravely and diligently protected their community during the recent blazes. Firefighters from Santa Clarity Valley stations 124 (Stevenson Ranch) and 126 (Valencia) will be in attendance and given special recognition during this
free event for the entire family.
The lighting will begin on
Sunday, December 2, 2007 at 2 p.m.
with entertainment and refreshments
on the hospital grounds.
The 40-foot-high tree will be lit at 5 p.m.
For more information, visit www.henrymayo.com .
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