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