Firefighters from Lewisville and other Texas fire departments are busy helping California contain one of its larger wildfires. And they’re using fire to fight fire.
As we reported last week, the State of Texas sent five strike teams of wildland firefighters and equipment to California at the request of that state. A team from North Texas is headed by captains Brandon Woodward and Seth Taylor of the Lewisville Fire Department. Capt. Michael Cox is also on the team, supervising the crew for a Dallas engine.
After getting their assignment, the team started firefighting operations on Saturday.
Woodward said their team was working on the Carr fire, currently 67 percent contained, having consumed 211,038 acres of northern California near Redding. The deadly fire has been burning since July 23, and has killed three firefighters according to Cal Fire. It has destroyed 1,077 residences and 22 commercial buildings and damaged many others.
The team from North Texas has been working the south side of the fire near Shasta Lake, trying to hold the line on a steep piece of terrain where a bulldozer had created a break. Firefighters make fire lines around wildland fires, pushing away brush, grass, trees or other fuel to keep fires from spreading.
“Once you make a line, you widen it by removing fuel on the fire side,” Woodward said.
On Saturday, when the winds were right, Woodward said their team used fire to widen that line and reduce the chances that flames would jump back across and threaten more destruction.
Calling it a burnout, Woodward said they are opportunistic in how they burn, but that great care is taken.
“We wait for the right opportunity so that our burnout will be successful,” Woodward said. “If the winds are not favorable, we’ll hold that line with people, but we won’t burn it until weather is favorable.”
Woodward said sometimes the diurnal cycle of wind changes is what gives them what they need.
Even so, using an intentional fire to stop a wildfire still makes him nervous.
“Every single time,” Woodward said. “As a line supervisor, if starting fire and using fire as a tool doesn’t make you nervous, then you don’t have enough experience.”
Their knowledge of the fuels, weather and topography help though, according to Woodward. Depending on the risk level, the call for whether or not to intentionally burnout an area may require approval from higher-level commanders.
Initially, Woodward thought his strike team would end up doing some structure protection for one of the fires. That did not turn out to be the case. Woodward said most of that work had already been done before they got there.
Woodward said firefighters working the blaze had completely surrounded it with fire line.
“That doesn’t mean the fire is necessarily 100 percent contained though,” he said. “We have to continue to patrol this line for several days until we’re certain that it’s not going to spot out and get over the lines.”
Woodward explained how the containment level of a wildland fire is calculated. He said that as firefighters create fire lines around the perimeter, those are marked each day on the map in red. Once a break has been created by bulldozer, hand, or natural barriers, firefighters try to reinforce the line and widen it, usually in part with some sort of burnout.
Next, firefighters have to find certainty.
“We patrol that line and mop it up to the point we feel 99 percent certain that fire is not going to cross there,” Woodward said.
Once they get that certainty, they redraw the line in black on the map. The percentage of containment is the percentage of black line shown on the fire’s perimeter. When the Lewisville Texan Journal spoke with Woodward on Monday, the fire was about half contained. As of Wednesday afternoon, Cal Fire reported it was at 67 percent.
“The forward progress of the fire has definitely stopped, and now we’re just securing and reinforcing the work that’s already been done here,” Woodward said.
Cal Fire reports 4,101 personnel working on the fire. Woodward thought it was a possibility his team could move if needed.
“We could be reassigned to new fires, and the role could change to structure protection,” he said. “That’s a very real possibility.”
The team is working 24-hour shifts on, with 24 hours off between shifts. Their first shift was Saturday, and they also worked Monday and Wednesday.
When they’re not on-shift, Woodward said that California had provided a fire camp in Anderson, south of Redding at the local fairgrounds. He said they were providing meals, showers and sleeper trailers for the firefighters.
Woodward said when the team gets back into camp, they eat, then rehab equipment and make sure everything is ready to go again for the next day. “Most of the guys will go ahead and take a nap,” Woodward said. After that, there is time for a short amount of personal business, eating again, and getting a full night’s rest, he said.
“Everyone is in really good spirits – engaged and working hard,” Woodward said. “Work is going well.”
Woodward said his team of 22 — part of the 97 sent from Texas — were well received by their hosts, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, a sister agency to Cal Fire.
As grateful as California is to have the help, Woodward noted his thanks to the citizens.
“The folks in the City of Lewisville who were willing to let us be out here are greatly appreciated.”
Stay tuned to The Lewisville Texan Journal for further updates.
As of 6:39 p.m, the Carr fire was 72 percent contained, and had burned 215,368 acres. It had destroyed 1,077 residences, 22 businesses, 500 outbuildings. Three firefighters have lost their lives on this fire. 3,573 firefighters are still working the fire.