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The California Wildfires

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

January 01, 2004  |  by Charles Gary

“I think that when you have someone who is absolutely set on trying to protect their property, there’s probably not much that anyone is going to be able to say to get them to leave,” Mankin says. “We let the officers know that they need to try to highlight the potential danger that may be facing the residents and our hope that they won’t become injured and therefore become an additional challenge to all the people who are trying to fight the fire.”

When the Grand Prix fire caused its hillside community’s power outage, television news bulletins were taken out of the San Bernardino County evacuation plan. Undeterred, deputies used a bullhorn to drive their evacuation message home.

Evacuation is no joke. The wildfire move so fast that homeowners sometimes have less than five minutes to escape, leaving all of their belongings, including operable vehicles, to the ravages of the firestorm.

“The message to the community was to tell them, basically, ‘Stay at your own risk, but it’s time for you to consider leaving because of the imminent danger coming your way,’” says San Bernardino SD Capt. John Hernandez, who presided over his department’s DOC. “We basically evacuated a total of about 42,000 people that weekend.”

The process of evacuating a community doesn’t start out in the field. Months before a command center needs to be activated for an emergency, logistics personnel—usually people with strong financial acumen—are scouting different resources for the buses that will be needed to transport people to safety.

“They can reach out immediately to contact those resources because these are already pre-planned, pre-scheduled, pre-assigned resource lists that they have contacted months before,” Hernandez says. “And they already have these letters of agreement and memos worked out and the resources will respond and help us.”

The financial staff in a command post does the wheeling and dealing, the procuring on behalf of the DOC. Some of the seemingly little things that go into an emergency operation come under their purview. For starters, those goggles and surgical masks which keep a fire’s impurities out of an officer’s eyes and lungs? Their various vendors are conscientiously priced well in advance of a major fire.

Another important logistical consideration to be worked out in advance is food for the emergency workers.

“Once upon a time, when everyone got hungry, we’d all go over to the jail and have some jail food,” Fairchild says. But with a little creativity and diplomacy, law enforcement officials at a fire can do much better. Needing to produce 100 meals during the fires, Fairchild gave a local Panda Express a call. To his delight, the Chinese fastfood chain came through—at no charge, no less. “You will find a lot of the local businesses stopping by at a fire with just trunk loads of food, saying, ‘I know you’re all hungry.’”

“We have a lot of people bring food to the location,” Mankin says. “We had the Salvation Army bring a chuckwagon out to the sheriff’s office. And we had some other businesses come up with mobile kitchens and setups to feed folks. But in the event that you don’t get that kind of support, you may need to have someone on the finance staff able to get in touch with some other local merchants or some place to feed the people who are there working on the disaster or the event.”

Looky Loos

In addition to evacuating residents who want to leave, and warning home martyrs who have chosen to stay, law enforcement officers often have to face another human challenge at major fires—gawkers who arrive in droves.

In October, the city of San Diego was besieged by fire, and some of the greatest concerns for public safety were keeping the curious out of the fire zones and providing access for fire equipment.

“It seems as though people are drawn to things like fires,” Mankin says. “They want to see what’s going on, and in their excitement and zeal to see what’s going on, oftentimes they become a bit of an impediment, an obstacle to getting the right emergency equipment in there to fight the fire and get the job done.”

During these instances, the California Highway Patrol was invaluable. “They were really instrumental in getting some closures of off-ramps on Highway 30 so that emergency equipment got into the area,” Mankin says.

CHP officers in Los Angeles faced the difficult task of keeping up with the five-mile front of the Santa Clarita fire. It was a fierce hellcat that threatened affluent Stevenson Ranch and necessitated voluntary evacuations at Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park in nearby Valencia. The southern division tended to a jurisdiction that stretched 604 square miles, forcing CHP officers to move their command post six times.

This time the Santa Ana winds were not a factor. Instead, an onshore wind flow that occurs daily between 11:00 a.m. and 1 p.m. would cause a sudden drop in humidity, sending the flames back toward communities.

The CHP officers closed Interstate 5 near the swift-moving blaze. “The reason we closed it is that there were power poles that go over the freeway and one of the poles on the west side had burnt through and let go of the wire,” explains Lt. Todd Hoose, Newhall CHP Area Commander. “So actually, all the tension of the wires that cross the freeway was on one pole and it began sagging.” After Southern California Edison secured the pole, the CHP was able to reopen the freeway.

Other CHP highway closings included State Route 118, which was in the path of the fire, and Highway 126, due to poor visibility from the fire’s smoke.

Onlookers and nonresidents pose other problems, as well. As residents are taken away, their endangered homes are not just vulnerable to fire, but also to looters. All law enforcement agencies chip in to deal with this nuisance.

“Once people evacuate, we keep some kind of security and control around so looters don’t get involved,” Fairchild says. “We also make sure that when the residents return to their homes, we check their identification.”

Thankfully, most wildfire emergencies do not approach the ferocity of the October blazes in Southern California. But when they do, a solid plan can help law enforcement increase its effectiveness.

“Forging relationships with other city and county departments whose resources may be called in to assist in whatever may be facing your jurisdiction and having those plans outlined beforehand will probably be the greatest key to success,” Mankin says.

“You’ve heard of the 100-year Flood? Well this is like that because it’s not going to happen very often that three major fires will occur in the same county at a time when all your fire resources are out of town,” McClintock says.

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