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Pawnee fire attack in Lake County aided by enhanced staffing, staged resources

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Nature delivered the heat and the wind just as expected Saturday, with temperatures that topped 100 degrees, sapping whatever moisture was left in the air and in the crop of dry grass and brush that surrounded the remote Lake County community of Spring Valley.

Relative humidity had dropped into the single digits before the Pawnee fire broke out, so when the flames ignited, they spread quickly, destroying 22 structures in the initial hours.

But crews were ready to respond, their staffing ramped up and both ground equipment and aircraft poised for call-up in anticipation of weather conditions that can spawn catastrophic wildfires. The planning was due in part to changes made since the October fires, when local agencies were short of needed help and a potent aerial attack did not begin until the third day of the fires.

Did it help?

“Absolutely,” said Lakeshore Fire Chief Jay Beristianos, whose department of 23 full-time firefighters was among the beneficiaries of reinforcements. “Any time you have free, assigned equipment, and you have people prepped and ready to go, it saves reaction time.”

In what state Sen. Mike McGuire described as a critical strategy at a time of larger, more disastrous and frequent infernos, Cal Fire had staffed up and positioned 195 fire engines and 100 hand crews around Northern California to ensure sufficient resources were available in the event fire broke out last weekend. The agency separately beefed up staffing in its hard-hit Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit, which last October endured the most destructive wildfires in state history.

Additional aircraft were called in to the region, as well, including a high-volume air tanker stationed at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento and two Blackhawk helicopters, one put on standby in Sonoma County and the other in Chico.

So even though two wildland fires in Tehama County got a four-plus-hour head start on the Pawnee, Cal Fire was able to deliver needed help in its early stages, officials said.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox said the deployment of state and local firefighting resources during the fire’s first half hour tell the story.

“It wasn’t, ‘Let’s wait and see what we’ve got,’ ” Cox said Wednesday. “It was, ‘I’m en route. This thing is going, and let’s get additional resources, and then additional resources again.’ ”

A column of smoke visible on a hillside above Spring Valley prompted a flurry of 911 calls at 5:21 p.m., resulting in an initial deployment that included: two fire chiefs from Northshore Fire and Cal Fire; nine engines — five from Cal Fire, three from local agencies and one from the Forest Service; two bulldozers and two hand crews of about 15 people each, all from Cal Fire; an air attack plane, three air tankers and a helicopter, Cox said. A local medic and water tender also were in the mix.

By 5:31 p.m., three minutes before the first firefighter was on scene, those already responding called for more help, receiving an additional water tender and helicopter, two hand crews and two more Cal Fire engines, Cox said.

At 5:35 p.m., five more engines were dispatched, as well as a Forest Service task force and another air tanker.

By 11 p.m., there were 150 fire personnel at work, and more were on the way, called out from local government agencies and fire districts beginning in the first hours after midnight, Cox said.

“It was a very, very robust response,” Cox said.

In Sonoma County, meanwhile, Sonoma Valley Fire Battalion Chief Spencer Andreis was monitoring developments to the north.

It was Andreis’ job to oversee a countywide task force of seven local fire engines assembled for the first time last week to be prepared to launch under “red flag” warning conditions predicted to last through the weekend.

Under increasingly proactive operating procedures informed in part by back-to-back wildfires in Lake County during 2015 — the deadly Valley fire among them — as well as by the North Bay firestorm last October, local fire agencies have been streamlining mutual aid responses to neighboring counties to get boots on the ground more efficiently.

So even though unexpectedly cool, overcast conditions in Sonoma County on Sunday morning had Andreis thinking he might be able to send task force members home earlier in the day than expected, the dry, gusting conditions in Lake County began blowing up the wildfire there and had him think better of it.

Anticipating a request for help in Lake County by nighttime, he began in the morning to identifymore available resources, eventually sending the task force to Spring Valley, in addition to a new strike team of engines — both within five minutes of the request from Cal Fire, he said.

McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat whose North Coast district includes fire-ravaged Lake County, said the changes are critical to defending against wildfires that have outstripped local agencies’ ability to respond, as evidenced last year in the North Bay fires.

The state for the first time this year is staffing Cal Fire for a year-round fire season, at an annual cost of $41 million, and has opened the air attack base at McClellan year-round.

In addition, the Legislature allocated $50 million available July 1 to fund and modernize mutual aid, which could include positioning of local strike teams in advance of fire weather to ensure they can be deployed more quickly.

“We have to change the way we’re combating the new reality of wildland fire in California,” McGuire said.

Public safety officials in Lake County are also acting on lessons learned. In March, for example, all fire agencies switched to a fire-only dispatch center, separate from the Lake County Sheriff’s network they had been using, Beristianos said.

“This worked out wonderful for us,” he said. “Unfortunately, throughout the years — the last handful of years —we’ve been having so many of these fires. They’re horrible fires, but we’re also learning each time.”

That recent history has helped put Lake County ahead of the curve on public emergency notification. When fires broke out around the region last October, Lake County officials were the only local government in Northern California to use cellphone push notifications to warn people about the firestorm threatening their neighborhoods.

Emergency manager Dale Carnathan said the 2015 Valley fire that burned from Cobb to Middletown spurred the county to take an aggressive approach to warning the public early and often, using as many methods possible.

And since October, Carnathan said they’ve taken steps to increase efficiency of warning methods, switching to a new software that allows him to deploy phone calls, text messages, emails, cellphone push notifications and messages through television, radio and social media from one screen.

“Time. Time is critical,” Carnathan said.

Saturday, he said they sent the first automated phone calls warning Spring Valley residents about the fires within two hours of the first dispatch report of fire.

“We didn’t tell people where to go, we just told people to get out,” Carnathan said.

They followed up with additional messages about an evacuation center once they had one established. He sent messages using social media, automated phone calls and text messages. He also used cellphone push notifications.

“There is only one way in and out of that valley,” Carnathan said. “It’s a two-lane road, so trying to get that information out as quickly as possible was imperative.”

At Cal Fire’s request, Pacific Gas & Electric de-energized a power line on Wolf Creek Road, where about a dozens structures were destroyed, cutting power to 570 customers shortly before 1 a.m. Sunday, spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.

That action in this case was not new — Cal Fire has long issued such requests to limit firefighter exposure to damaged equipment or to prevent equipment for sparking additional flames amid a wildfire event.

Anna and Dean Middling, who were staying at the American Red Cross evacuation shelter at Lower Lake High School in Clearlake, were among those who lost power that night.

Drawn to Lake County by its scenic views and the chance to own a 1-acre parcel, they knew fire was a possibility when they moved to Spring Valley 15 years earlier. This week marked the second time they have evacuated their home in the face of a wildfire.

“You’ve got to have that in your mind when you move rural,” said Anna Middling, 62. “You’ve got to know that you’re going to be exposed to that.”

Still, it took two notices, the second coming about around 2 a.m. Sunday — 7½ hours after the first visit from authorities — before they were convinced to leave. The order came in a knock on the door, and there was no time to pack a bag. They grabbed their medication and their cat, Penny, and left for the shelter.

On Wednesday afternoon, authorities lifted the evacuation order that affected their neighborhood, and the couple were planning to return home.

“You just never really believe it’s going to happen,” Anna Middling said.

Staff Writers Kevin Fixler and Julie Johnson contributed to this report.

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