With the Sand Fire 95 percent contained and everyone breathing a little easier, on Wednesday a tour of the incident command post at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds showed activity had already started tapering off.
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Outside the building used as the incident command center, a map showed the extent of the fire.
“It was a topography-driven fire,” said Cal Fire Public Information Officer Kevin Lucero of Butte County as he traced on the map where it began and how it spread. Walking the length of the fairgrounds, he described how all the different planning and logistical units fit together to suppress the fire as well as the role other agencies and community groups played throughout the fire.
Initially Cal Fire firefighters from Amador and El Dorado County had responsibility, he said, but once the fire grew to a size larger than the local units could handle, on Saturday Incident Management Team 2 was assigned to handle it.
“Within 12 hours of notification we had half the team up here,” he said, “with roughly half the units coming from the northern part of the state and half from the south. Doing it this way gives us more flexibility in our response.”
In line with activation of an Incident Management Team, a mini-city then sprang up to keep the team supplied with enough manpower, equipment, food, communications and ancillary services to not only put out the fire but to make sure everyone had what they needed.
The Incident Management Team also coordinated with a long list of other agencies, including the CHP, PG&E, the California Office of Emergency Services (OES), El Dorado County, Caltrans, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Amador County, the CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation), the Red Cross and many local community groups like El Dorado County Watch.
Walking through the fairgrounds, the incident command post did seem like a well-ordered city as 20 to 25 members of the CCC (California Conservation Corp) policed the grounds picking up trash. “We try to leave an area better than how we found it,” Lucero said, adding that CCC members also run lunches out to people so everyone stays fed, since fighting a fire means eating a high calorie diet. Lunch alone is around 5,000 calories.
The California OES was also there to help in the movement of resources. “We have mutual-aid agreements with different agencies,” said Lucero, and OES helps us move staff from these different agencies from one region to another.”
Lucero himself is from Butte County, but at the incident command post he worked as a public information officer.
In one of the fair buildings, a cafeteria had been set up to serve a cold breakfast of cereal, fruit and pastry with enough tables to feed hundreds of firefighters at a time. A separate mobile kitchen dished out hot meals with the capability of serving up to 5,000 meals at a feeding. “Everything is prepared to restaurant quality or better,” said Lucero.
On that particular day they were serving scrambled eggs with cheese, biscuits and gravy and seasoned potatoes with a “whole bunch of goodies inside.”
Inmates from CDCR did the cleaning, preparing and serving of the food. “These are inmates who have demonstrated good behavior and are trained in food handling and food preparation,” said Lucero. “These guys really take pride and work really hard on providing a good level of service to the fire line personnel.”
Scattered on the grounds were stations where firefighters could clean their hands, portable trailers for taking showers and doing laundry and large tents to house multiple firefighters, each with its own cooling unit.
Crews worked in 24 hours shifts, meaning they worked straight for 24 hours and then were off for 24 hours to rest, eat and restock supplies.
With up-to-date communications of utmost importance, a mobile communication trailer acted as a hub for receiving and transmitting information. It supports any kind of communication: radio, text, e-mail, phone or cell, said Lucero. Through it, they were able to stay in contact with their supervisors on the line and to receive continuous updates from them.
An unusual trailer nearby was called the cloning trailer, although it was for radios not people. Lucero explained that every fire incident is assigned a specific number of frequencies and specific groups, so one of the first things everyone has to do when they check in at an incident command post is have their radio reprogrammed for the right frequency.
The mini city also included a safety trailer, a first-aid station, a separate ground support team to do vehicle maintenance, and last, a finance and time team.. “They make sure people get paid correctly, that we received everything ordered and have paid everything correctly. They also do an audit every day or every few days to make sure everything adds up,” he said.
Once the fire is out, work doesn’t completely stop, however. According to Lucero, the crews repair any damage that occurred during fire suppression including fixing damaged culverts or water breaks and creating water bars in order to minimize runoff. Dead trees are also removed, with the work continued by local fire units.
A thousand acts if kindness
While the professional firefighters saved the day, it was the assistance given by many groups and agencies that helped residents in the fire zone to get through it.
Lucero said the list of public, private and voluntary groups who came together to help when the fire broke out would run to three or four pages, including hundreds of volunteers, the Red Cross, the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department and a community group called El Dorado County Watch.
Sgt. Chris Felton of the El Dorado Sheriff’s Department, described their role using the reverse 911 system to alert people to the fire danger followed by deputies going door-to-door to advise people to leave.
Initially these evacuees were directed to stay at the fairgrounds, but preparations were insufficient for the number of people who showed up Friday evening after the fire broke out.
Laura Clark, an administrator for a Facebook group called El Dorado County Watch, described how the community came together to help those people, saying once the word went out about the situation on their Facebook site, people and businesses voluntarily brought food to the fairgrounds. “People left their homes and went to the store and bought food,” she said. “Someone said they were at Wal-Mart and asked what do you want? One person picked up 10 bags of salad and another bought salad dressing. Several pizza restaurants donated pizzas and even delivered them. We fed 250-260 people in an hour.
“We also had about 500 people offer to put people up in their homes. Another 200 offered to take in animals. We actually had more people offering help than we had a need for. Unofficially we had people offering to go get people in the path of the evacuation.
“Lee’s Feed also opened up accounts that people could donate to so those displaced could get feed for their animals without having to pay for it. High Hill Ranch donated gift cards for firefighters to use to buy drinks or sandwiches at the supermarket. One woman went to the evacuation center and realized they only had old towels, so she went out and bought a hundred towels, washed, dried and folded them and delivered them. Another woman who stayed during the fire found out what animals had been left behind and would go by and feed and water them. That was the good she tried to do. Then there was a person trying to evacuate with a horse trailer but got a flat tire. A message went out that he needed a tire and, boom, one arrived so he could evacuate. These were all volunteers doing this.”
Clark said there were many, many more stories like that during the fire. She said the Facebook group has already raised almost $12,000 to help people, but they wouldn’t be giving money to anyone other than a 501(c)3 charity.
Sgt. Felton added a caution about fundraising on behalf of victims of the fire, saying that “with all this comes fraud. Nothing has come up so far,” he said, “but sometimes people offer to put on a fundraiser and then take off with the money. So we are monitoring that.”
And though everyone lauded the Red Cross for the phenomenal job it did feeding and taking care of the evacuees, Felton said social media works faster in garnering community support.
“El Dorado County is pretty special” said Felton. “I’m not sure you’d have this kind of outpouring of help elsewhere.”
To contact El Dorado Watch, their Website is facebook.com/groups/376286302473167.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.