Forty years ago in the 1977 California fire season, I was assigned to Engine 7 of the Butte County Fire Department, located in the very small town of Gridley. The manning level was one seasonal firefighter (me) and a full-time Operator-Engineer. We were augmented by an all-volunteer Engine Company staffed by about 15 volunteer firefighters who had their own somewhat ancient fire engine with an open cab. There were no fire hydrants in much of the area and we used the large, black, hard drafting hoses to pull water from irrigation canals when it was available. Otherwise, we had to shuttle water some distance with multiple engines to fight structure fires. We were very good but unfortunately, often only “saved” many foundations.
As Engine 7 responded to fires a volunteer engineer-driver would be arriving to take out the volunteer unit while rest of the volunteers responded directly to the scene. In those days volunteer firefighters still rode on tail-boards and provided fire protection to over 85 percent of the American population. It worked well until it didn’t which wasn’t very often. Most importantly, it was a cost-effective way to provide fire protection in small communities that didn’t have the luxury of a full-time, paid fire department.
During that summer a wildland fire threatened the town of Paradise (similar to Atascadero in size and terrain). Butte County Fire, using the Mutual Aid System, deployed a convoy of 50 fire engines going “Code 3” (lights and sirens) roaring through Gridley on Highway 99 to rescue Paradise. It happened again some years ago and firefighters were able for a second time to save them from catastrophe.
Paradise implemented probably the best emergency response and evacuation plan devised in the State and conducted multiple, worst-case live-exercises. Despite their extraordinary efforts to plan and prepare, it wasn’t enough and the town of Paradise was virtually obliterated by wildland fire last weekend with considerable loss of life.
Over time, economic conditions have made use of volunteers increasingly less reliable as the volunteer firefighter also had a full-time job and less flexible employers. As economic conditions changed employers were ever more reluctant to allow their employees to respond to fires during normal business hours. Thus, more and more full-time personnel found themselves responding to fires with only a third of the required manpower for an incident. As State and Federal safety regulations increased along with mandated hours of training for firefighters, use of volunteers became less cost-effective and sometimes, just not permitted.
Unfortunately, the increasing cost of providing full-time firefighters to man each Engine Company has become prohibitive, resulting in small departments like Atascadero, from being able to increase manning levels.
Simultaneously, the demand for services provided by fire departments dramatically increased, with emergency medical treatment in the field expanding from advanced first aid to use of Emergency Medical Technicians and then Paramedics. The advanced medical capabilities saved a lot of lives over the years and substantially increased survival rates for victims critically injured in car accidents or from life-threatening medical emergencies at home. Fire services in the 1970’s went from scooping up victims and transporting them to a hospital to stabilizing them in the field or providing life-saving procedures in an ambulance en route to a hospital emergency department.
Atascadero was no exception and the demand for service has steadily increased over the years. For instance, in 2007 the Atascadero Fire Department responded to about 2,000 calls a year of which 85 percent or more were medical assistance calls. Today they respond to over 3,000 calls a year.
When I first served as a reserve firefighter back in the 1970’s, we had about 30 reserve-volunteer firefighters augmenting less than 10 full-time personnel who were spread over three shifts. That mix almost always guaranteed that at any structure or wildland fire the initial response would have about three full-time personnel and a dozen or more reserves responding directly to the incident on hand, day or night. (The National Fire Protection Association recommends a manpower response of at least 15 personnel to any room & contents fire to operate safely.) That changed over the years to about six full-time personnel on duty to respond and maybe five or fewer reserves on hand. The reserve response dropped because fewer reserves were participating in the program with a reduction in reserve manning by two-thirds from previous levels.
As a result, fewer firefighters are covering larger areas while the fire load, be it in more structures or more wildland areas to protect has exponentially increased. That leads us to the present fire threat in our community. What happened in the town of Paradise in Butte County last weekend to some extent can happen in Atascadero.
Atascadero Fire Department has two stations, manned at most with eight or nine personnel at any given time. When Engine Companies are out on a medical call and another call comes in, they rely upon mutual aid and personnel callbacks for station coverage. However, our population has nearly doubled since Station 2 became operational 30 years ago and manning levels decreased due to the diminishment of the reserve firefighter program.
In cases like Paradise, virtually no amount of fire resources could prevent the disaster that occurred. Historical records prove wind-driven fires occur frequently throughout California and fire departments can at best contain them as the winds decrease.
To prevent what happened in Paradise from occurring in Atascadero or elsewhere requires stricter codes mandating fire-resistant construction and especially, expanded “safe zone” clearances around structures and weed/brush abatement. State law mandates 100 feet of clearance; it should be doubled and include clearing brush well away from roadways and evacuation routes. It also requires vigorous emergency planning and realistic exercises that include the public for potential “worst case scenarios.”
Finally, it requires the realization that some areas cannot be protected and to build and live there is to play “Russian roulette” against wildland fire with your family’s lives at stake.