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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.