The Coast News Group
On-duty firefighters stand in solidarity in front of an engine at the Encinitas Fire Station 3 at 801 Orpheus Ave. From left, Battalion Chief Robbie Ford, Engineer Paul Reeve, Firefighter/Paramedic Ray Tellechea and Captain Josh Gordon. Photo by Carey Blakely

Local firefighters get ready for fire season

The first part of fire season is almost here, to be closely followed by the Santa Ana phase. With nearly 76 percent of California residents experiencing “abnormal dryness or drought,” according to a National Integrated Drought Information System’s report on May 1, it’s time to get ready.

And Encinitas Fire Station 3 is doing just that.

The station house conducted recent field drills in Indian Head Canyon off Saxony Road in Encinitas, where local firefighters put various protocols into practice, such as strategic hose placement, water pumping, radio communication and being overrun by flames and having to deploy a fire shelter.

Battalion Chief Robbie Ford — responsible for the daily operational and administrative needs of the fire stations in Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar when he’s on duty —  said April and May are the months to prepare for the California fire season that typically runs from June through October. 

Mandatory refresher training on battling wildfires helps personnel “to shake off the cobwebs of winter,” Ford said, and prepares them for the real thing.

The best hope you can have for putting out a fire, Ford explained, is locating it quickly and keeping it small. Firefighters will attempt to “anchor” where the fire has started and flank it, hoping to head it off and eventually contain it.

In 2017, local firefighters helped battle 24 fires in California, including the Thomas Fire, which raged across Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, claiming two lives, destroying 1,063 structures and burning 281,893 acres.

The eight stations across Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar also supplied manpower last year to the Tubbs, Lilac, Detwiler and other fires.

Ford explained how assisting outside the jurisdiction gives his personnel valuable, hands-on experience with how large fires move and spread. It also provides training in coordinating across agencies when numerous city, state and federal entities have to work and communicate together to achieve containment.

At the same time, Ford said he and other fire-department administrators have to “maintain a delicate balance” of keeping enough personnel and equipment on hand for local emergencies while also lending assistance to other agencies.

The Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar fire departments have an agreement with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services that allows local firefighters to be summoned to active fires overseen by state and federal jurisdictions. The agreement also dictates how the personnel will be compensated and the city reimbursed for any resources used.

As firefighters do their best to keep local people, land and homes safe from wildfire, what can residents do? “Help us help you,” Ford said. The better prepared that people and homes are for the threat of wildfire, the better the chance of containment.

Residents should maintain what’s called “defensible space” around their homes by limiting the “fuel” that can spread fires. That means keeping grass trimmed, clearing yards and roofs of dead leaves, and storing cords of wood well away (at least 10 feet) from structures. Plants should be cleared from under tall trees to prevent flames from climbing to lower tree branches and then higher (called a “fire ladder”).

Other precautions include: making sure the house address is clearly marked, planting fire-safe landscaping and having a roof made of non-combustible material. As Ford said, “We have to allocate resources as best we can on houses that are salvageable.” If firefighters at an evacuated house are faced with a locked gate, overgrown yard and narrow driveway, they might decide as the flames fan higher that their efforts are better spent at trying to save a different structure.

Residents should also have an emergency plan (primary and backup) and sign up for reverse 911, a public alert system. Landlines are automatically enrolled, but cell phones are not.

The stations in Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas are busy handling more than fires. They responded to 10,181 incidents in 2017 — which is about 28 calls per day — related to traffic collisions, heart attacks, suspicious odors, smoke, lift assist and more.