Firefighters in California have been struggling to contain raging wildfires this week across the state. They may soon have help from North Texas, including firefighters and equipment from Lewisville. A strike team from North Texas would be one of five or six groups from around the state to assist.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as of Saturday night, there were 13 wildfires affecting 413,120 acres of California, none of which were contained.
The fires have destroyed over 2,000 structures and killed eight people so far, according to the Sacramento Bee, which says more than 14,000 personnel are on the front lines battling the blazes.
The Carr fire near Redding is reported to have started July 23 because of a flat tire on a trailer that caused a rim to make sparks. But conditions were ripe to whip any fire into a raging conflagration. Dry weather and low humidity combined with abundant fuels and high winds caused that fire to nearly double in size each day for the first five days. Cal Fire now reports it has burned 145,015 acres and is only 41 percent contained as of Sunday morning.
Lewisville Fire Chief Tim Tittle said that North Texas Task Force was putting the response together and that Assistant Chief Mark McNeal was coordinating Lewisville’s part.
“They are really struggling,” McNeal said of the situation in California. “They’ve exhausted mutual aid resources, and state resources are spread pretty thin.”
“There’s quite a few [fires] that they are a long way from getting a handle on,” McNeal said.
McNeal said that although Lewisville regularly responds to mutual aid calls to nearby cities, and sends help for wildfires across Texas, this would be the first time for Lewisville to send firefighters out of state. “This will be the first,” McNeal said. “It’s a neat opportunity Lewisville is part of — just to be able to go.”
LFD captains Brandon Woodward and Seth Taylor will be leading a strike team of five firefighting apparatus and their crews from Dallas, Frisco and Plano. LFD Capt. Michael Cox will lead a tender crew from Dallas.
“Not everybody in our department is qualified to go on wildland deployments,” McNeal said.
“The ones that are going now have some of the higher qualifications. Brandon Woodward is recognized across the nation. He’s done a ton of time on wildland deployments through the Forest Service both private, and he’s done a lot with the state.”
The strike team that Woodward and Taylor will lead will include three fire engines, a tender and a type 6 brush engine.
A tender, commonly called a tanker is a truck meant to haul water from its source to firefighting apparatus. In forest service parlance, McNeal said, a tanker means a fixed-wing aircraft, and a tender is driven on a road.
The type 6 brush engine, commonly known as a brush truck, is built on a pickup truck frame and carries a water tank, foam system, pump and hose. While tank sizes vary greatly, Lewisville’s Brush 1 has a 400 gallon tank. It’s intended to be stable on rough and extreme sloped terrain, and can pump water while on the move.
Each engine will have four firefighters. The brush rig will have three firefighters and the tanker would have three to four, according to McNeal.
The plan is to ship the equipment instead of driving it, to avoid putting mileage on it. The firefighters will fly out by commercial airline.
Initial plans had called for sending one of Lewisville’s brush trucks to the fires, but as of Saturday night, McNeal said that was not going to happen. The one provided by the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System is normally housed in Lewisville’s Fire Station 1. Saturday morning, it had been washed up and ready to go, after having just been deployed to a 500 acre grassfire in Alvord Friday.
The current plan is that Lewisville will send a 3/4 ton pickup truck as a command vehicle for Woodward and Taylor to use.
Chiefs Tittle and McNeal both stressed that Lewisville taxpayers will not be footing the bill for the California efforts. “The city is reimbursed both for the people and the apparatus that we send,” McNeal said. Tittle explained that the city is even reimbursed for the personnel costs of backfilling the positions of the firefighters who go out for the strike team.
For most of Friday and Saturday, the deployment plans were still fluid. McNeal explained that Texas had submitted a bid to California for the help, and that they were waiting on approval from California. He said that plans had changed several times, and could change again. Saturday night, McNeal said they finally got the go-ahead.
“We don’t know the timeframes,” McNeal said. “They’re hoping that [the equipment] will ship out [Sunday], and then once they find out when it’ll arrive, we’ll know when our guys leave,” he said.
McNeal said it could be Monday or Tuesday that the strike team would meet up with the equipment in Sacramento.
As for the team’s fire assignment, McNeal didn’t know yet. “With the apparatus we’re sending, I’m assuming our assignment’s going to be more urban interface and structural protection since we’re not sending all wildland,” McNeal said.
“We’ll know more about that assignment as we get the resource orders.”
Woodward said the rumor was that the team was headed to the Carr fire, an area he’s familiar with after fighting fires in the Klamath National Forest in northern California last year.
Even though this deployment will be the first out-of-state deployment through Lewisville Fire Department and TIFMAS, Woodward said he gets out of the state regularly to fight wildfires, something he’s done for 20 years.
Normally he does that with the U.S. Forest Service.
Growing up in Decatur, the son of a rancher, Woodward did prescribed burns and learned from his dad about the benefits to the land that it can bring.
“Fire’s a very powerful tool we can use for ecosystem management,” Woodward said.
After college, Woodward began what he describes as moonlighting with the U.S. Forest Service.
“I got involved with the U.S. Forest Service there in Decatur helping them with prescribed burning, and that then parlayed into sort of a side career if you will in wildland firefighting.”
Most of the work he does is supervisory these days. For Lewisville, he normally works at Fire Station 6 where he is the station captain on C shift.
The strike team is expected to spend 16 days on their mission — one day each way for travel, and 14 days fighting fires. Unlike the schedule back home of one day on, two days off, they will work every day, and could be working around the clock. Ideally, Woodward said, they’ll try to work no more than about 16 hours a day to get the appropriate amount of rest, but he said that on a fire they might sometimes work for 20-30 hours in a row.
Food and “lodging” are provided. Woodward said the lodging is typically a camp. “Fire camps are a nice flat place to put a tent,” he said.
As for the firefighting, Woodward said that his team would likely be doing support work like securing lines or structure protection. “For a going fire, we would go into an area and prep and try to keep homes from burning — that’s a common use for our equipment and people,” Woodward said.
“We’ll do the prudent work that we need to do, and that might include cutting brush or trees away from homes, cleaning up and clearing around them, putting in what we call hand line, digging a trail around.”
Firefighters make hand lines by removing fuel from a line on the ground by raking or pushing away burnable materials all the way down to bare soil, to prevent fire from burning across.
Woodward said there is even times when they’re authorized to use fire. “We actually use a back fire to protect those homes,” he said. “We have an arsenal of tools in our toolbox to try to do the best work there to protect them.”
As for his teammates Taylor and Cox, Woodward said they and a handful of other guys had invested a lot of personal time in training and experience that it takes to go out.
“They’re both very knowledgeable in the business, and they’ve both have been on large fires in Texas, and they’ve both been out on prescribed fires and other forms of training,” he said. He said that Taylor also teaches chainsaw operations in a wildland environment.
“Both of them are great dudes that I’m excited to go out with,” Woodward said. “We have a really good group here.”
According to Woodward, Lewisville is very supportive of firefighters getting wildland training. He said that quite a few Lewisville firefighters have at least basic wildland training, which is standardized nationwide.
Though that basic training is enough to get a firefighter working on a fire, by the time a firefighter gets to be an engine boss or a strike team leader, they may have had 15-20 courses in wildland firefighting, Woodward said.
Woodward also complimented Dallas for having a robust wildland fire program, as well as Flower Mound, Frisco, McKinney, and Plano. He said the TIFMAS partners in the North Texas area had probably the largest and most experienced group of wildland firefighters in Texas.
When the team’s time in California is up, he said it’s likely they will be replaced by more firefighters from North Texas, including Lewisville.
“The folks that we’re taking out there are all trained to national standards in wildland firefighting, and many of them have a lot of really good experience here in Texas on large and devastating fires that we’ve had in the last few years,” Woodward said.
“While this is a ways from home, it’s not a completely foreign environment for these firefighters. Going across state lines is new but the work we’re going to do there is the same kind of work they would do right here at home.”
Stay tuned to The Lewisville Texan Journal. We’ll provide updates as we learn about the team’s progress in California.
(Feature photo by Travis Cunha, U.S. Forest Service)