Fire knows no jurisdictions
Fire agencies support one another with mutual aid
By Mary-Justine Lanyon
County Fire. Cal Fire. The U.S. Forest Service. And then there are the local fire departments like Running Springs and Arrowbear Lake. Who serves which areas?
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Brett Taylor recently answered that question at meetings of the Mountain Sunrise and Crestline-Lake Gregory Rotary Clubs.
Chief Taylor began his fire career as an Explorer in Redlands. He went to become a paid call firefighter, then worked with the San Manual Fire Department and then moved up to the Eastern Sierras.
Five years ago, he was promoted to battalion chief and has been on the mountain at the Cal Fire post in Skyforest ever since.
Using a color-coded map, Chief Taylor pointed to the green areas, which are the jurisdiction of the Forest Service; yellow, which falls under Cal Fire; and gray, which is covered by local departments.
However, as fire authorities have pointed out before, fire knows no boundaries, doesn’t care about jurisdictions.
When there is a house fire on the mountain, County Fire will respond as it involves a structure. But, the chief said, “we all get dispatched. Cal Fire gets dispatched because the structure fire can be a threat to surrounding vegetation.
“We each have different concerns. When we get there, if there is no threat to vegetation, we can move into mutual aid mode and help County Fire with their call. We do that fairly regularly,” the chief said, “but it doesn’t mean we have jurisdictional authority.”
Cal Fire – which was known as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection until the late 2000s – is divided into north and south regions with 21 units, serving 31 million acres of state responsibility area (SRA).
The San Bernardino unit serves 1.5 million acres in Mono, Inyo, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties. A third of those acres are in Los Angeles County, a third in Mono and Inyo and a third in San Bernardino counties.
At peak staffing the San Bernardino unit has 17 engines, up to 12 hand crews, two bulldozers and a new Firehawk helicopter. With its 1,000-gallon tank, the helicopter can drop water on a fire. But it also can be used to drop firefighters into an area inaccessible by land and it can perform hoist rescues.
Chief Taylor is responsible for four Cal Fire fire stations on the mountaintop: on Waters Drive in Crestline, at the ranger station on Highway 18 in Skyforest, in Running Springs and in Baldwin Lake. Each has one fire engine staffed 24/7 during fire season. Only the Running Springs station is staffed during the winter.
Pilot Rock has transitioned from housing an inmate crew to having five paid crews there. “That gives us more flexibility on what we can do and where we can go,” the chief said. During the winter, there is one crew at Pilot Rock.
Cal Fire just wrapped up a joint project with the Forest Service in the Grass Valley area. They also worked recently at the Strawberry Peak communication site and removed hazardous trees by Lake Gregory.
“The hand crew is the backbone of getting containment on fires,” Chief Taylor said, adding that fire is healthy for the forest.
Almost every fire on the mountaintop will have three or four agencies responding, the chief said. They have different dispatch centers, different radio frequencies, respond with different resources. “We all have different missions, jurisdictions and types of resources,” he said.
For example, Cal fire does not have water tenders but does have lots of aircraft. County Fire has lots of water tenders but limited aircraft.
Based on the call type – structure, brush, location – local resources are dispatched to a fire. “Then,” Chief Taylor said, “we use one command frequency to one dispatch center, rather than each using its own. This creates more work for the one dispatch center but keeps things more organized. This creates unified command.
“There is rarely a fire on the mountain where there are not at least two agencies that respond. Each will have an incident commander; they all stick together like glue and make decisions together. The result is there is no confusion – it’s very orderly. All agencies place their orders for equipment and personnel through one dispatch center. The incident commanders declare who is ordering action and why they are recommending it.”
Chief Taylor used the Radford Fire – which took place in Big Bear last September – as an example of how unified command works. Ten years ago, he noted, it would have been confusing. The agencies have been using unified command long enough now that the confusion has been lessened.
The Forest Service had jurisdiction at the Radford Fire, with County Fire having jurisdiction over the threatened homes. The fire, the chief said, stayed mostly in the Forest Service area. Even though the fire was not a threat to the Cal Fire area on the first day, the agency had a significant presence with lots of equipment.
On the second day, the fire headed north toward Big Bear Lake so the agencies went into unified command.
Cal Fire has allocated millions of dollars to air assets. They had been using Vietnam era helicopters but are now using the new Firehawk S70i helicopter. They are still maintaining air tankers and air attack ships and have added five C130 planes to their fleet.
“In the last five years,” Chief Taylor said, “people are not as hesitant as they once were to order aircraft. Folks used to be ‘sheepish’ about ordering air assets. Now we will see a DC10 on an initial attack.
“Cal Fire and the Forest Service has become more aggressive with the use of aircraft early on incidents. If you order aircraft early,” he added, “a fire will be expensive but it will be a smaller incident. It has gotten more acceptable to order a large number of resources and keep fires small.”
Fighting a fire today is still challenging, the chief noted. But, as a result of the 2003 Old Fire, the agencies have standardized the way they talk to each other, using the same language for equipment.
“No one agency has enough resources to deal with a fire on its own,” Chief Taylor said.