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Cover Story

The California Wildfires

Firefighters weren’t the only ones on the front lines of recent wind-driven blazes.

January 01, 2004  |  by Charles Gary

The two men were just doing their job. They had somehow managed to scramble up a canyon on what San Diego county firefighters call the Interface—an almost rural suburban area. Wildcat Canyon Road, a two-lane highway, had been partially consumed by what was later calculated to be the largest fire in California history, and rendered useless as an evacuation route. Having carried out the very best rescue effort they could improvise, the men now paused on an enormous grass lawn in a ranch, waiting for the encroaching blaze to come for them. They were sheriff’s deputies. Miraculously, they survived.

Last fall, the map of Southern California looked like that map of Nevada that goes up in flames at the start of old “Bonanza” TV reruns. Huge, concurrent fires raged in San Diego County in the South, and San Bernardino and Simi Valley, in the Los Angeles area, testing the effectiveness of the state’s Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS). On the front lines with county firefighters, law enforcement officials—particularly county sheriff’s department personnel—played a key role in protecting citizens threatened by the inferno.

Highway Patrol officers, sheriff’s deputies, and police pulled together under hellish conditions to open byways for other emergency workers, evacuate neighborhoods, and save lives during the fire crisis.

Planning the Attack

California’s SEMS mandate grew out of the 1991 East Bay Hills fire in the Northern California city of Oakland. Analysis of that disaster uncovered a glaring need for better coordination among the state’s emergency response agencies during fires. Established under Section 8607 of California’s government code, the provision applies the Incident Command System—a protocol for distribution of resources used nationally by firefighters—as a model for all California agencies responding to emergencies. Local fire departments and law enforcement divisions each activate their respective emergency offices with staff working in 12-hour shifts.

At this level, the offices are called a Department Operations Center (DOC). For law enforcement, this team operates separately from the daily personnel needed to perform routine law enforcement tasks. A pre-designated incident commander presides over a small crew that supports a larger field staff with duties ranging from communications to logistics. At the county level, there is the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and above EOC is the state Office of Emergency Services (OES). Each post offers a wider purview of resources to supplement its lower tiers.

Physically, the law enforcement command centers vary from county to county, but there are a few essentials—televisions to monitor fire news, radio communications to stay in touch with deputies out in the field, maps of the area, and phones.

Some DOCs complement their offices with a mobile command center, equipped with important bells and whistles. The San Bernardino Police Department’s mobile complement is a large Bluebird bus that features dispatch consoles and flat-panel-screen computer terminals for dispatchers to use in the field, and provides a central gathering point for arriving resources and manpower.

Meanwhile, out in the field, hundreds of law enforcement officials team up with their fire counterparts and members of the community to keep people out of harm’s way. The whole system needs careful preparation to run smoothly. But there is no way to prepare for all contingencies.

“A wildfire is a completely different sort of event,” says San Bernardino PD Lt. Frank Mankin, the incident commander for his DOC. “So we prepare for the possibilities when we conduct exercises of our emergency operations center.”

Although rescue attempts sometimes must be improvised, training for possible incidents helps to prepare for catastrophic events.

“A lot of what we do would seem monumental, but a lot of it is planned out in advance,” says Sgt. Howard Fairchild, the incident commander for the Santa Clarita station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “The county has one to two mock emergency training events every year.”

San Diego Police Officer Bryan Young battles a roof fire in the Scripps Ranch area. The house was saved.

But cops can’t prepare for all variables in training. Wildfires can be unpredictable, and worse, like they did in October, they can come in bunches.

Still, multi-agency training helps build relationships that can be counted on when the smoke starts to rise. For example, by the time San Diego’s multiple fires began to get out of hand, the county sheriff’s department had already begun calling additional units from outlying stations and surrounding agencies. It helped that San Diego County’s EOC was conveniently located in the same building as the Sheriff’s Department’s DOC.

“When we needed a face-to-face with county, it was easy to just run downstairs,” says Commander Scott McClintock, who served in the San Diego DOC. At the unprecedented rate the monstrous Cedar, Paradise, and Otai area fires were spreading, this proximity was critical. County damage assessments estimate that at one point the Cedar Fire spread at an incredible rate of 5,000 acres per hour, so at the DOC, every second counted.

Evacuation Orders

According to Fire Capt. Chris Hess of the San Diego Emergency Communications Center, the fire seemed to outpace the SEMS system, exploiting the absence of San Diego resources that were already helping San Bernardino County with its fire. “The order of priority is always life, and then property,” she says. “At the time, San Bernardino had already lost structures with others threatened and we couldn’t have known the Cedar fire would turn into the conflagration it became.”

When the Santa Ana winds kick up in Southern California, a small brush fire can become a wind-whipped inferno that sends flames racing across the landscape and blots out the sun with smoke.

Making matters worse, the mercurial Santa Ana winds had begun to wreak havoc with the intelligence efforts of deputies out in the field. These deputies normally radio back to their DOC with information about the fire’s direction. The command center then uses the information to dispatch an evacuation plan to the deputies. But 50-mile gusts had morphed the Cedar fire’s smoke plume into a low-flying, horizontal wall instead of the traditional vertical mushroom cloud that allows fire and law enforcement to get a fix on a blaze’s intentions. With no visibility, evacuation efforts were a nightmare.

“Because of their lack of visibility, the deputies had to self-dispatch,” McClintock says. “So they, on their own, would try to stay ahead of the fire. The deputies would need to report back to the command post through radio communications on what streets they had evacuated and on the occasional homesteader who refused to be evacuated.”

Stubborn homeowners are a common problem for law enforcement in evacuations. By insisting on staying to defend their homes, they put themselves—and, consequently, their rescuers—in peril.

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