Wednesday, October 4, 2023

With Record-Breaking Heat on the Horizon, Mendocino County Firefighters Position Strike Teams for Immediate Response

A CAL FIRE team marches to fight the Hopkins Fire in September 2021 [Picture by Matt LaFever]

A potentially record-breaking heatwave is predicted to descend on Mendocino County in the coming days. Ukiah could see a high of  113°F on Tuesday, September 6, 2022. These sweltering temperatures have intensified the risk of wildfire in our region. 

For the first time since California’s Office of Emergency Services began funding the pre-emptive formation of firefighters in regions facing elevated fire risk, Mendocino County has prepositioned two strike teams ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

Ukiah Valley Fire Battalion Chief Justin Buckingham, the leader of one of Mendocino County’s two strike teams, said his team is focused on immediate response to incidents that ignite within the county. The other strike team is based in Lake County and focused on assisting their agencies to respond to incidents that flare up there, where Chief Buckingham said the terrain and topography result in higher rates of elevated-fire risk.

Firefighters saturate a structure fire with water during the Hopkins Fire in September 2021 [Picture by Matt LaFever]

This is the first formal formation of strike teams in Mendocino County ahead of elevated fire risk since California’s Office of Emergency Services began funding them in 2018. Buckingham told us Hopland Fire Chief Mitch Franklin is Mendocino County’s Operational Area Coordinator, essentially the liaison to OES, and, as the predictions of the heat wave emerged, he applied for the funding to form the strike teams. 

Buckingham told us these temperatures will cause any fires that start to spread rapidly. The fuels were already dry, but, with nighttime temperatures predicted to remain high, there will be no humidity recovery accelerating the potential of spread. These critically-dry fuels require an immediate and significant response, hence the formation of the strike teams.

Buckingham’s strike team, currently stationed in Ukiah, consists of engines from Ukiah Valley Fire Authority, Anderson Valley Fire, and Leggett Fire, a water tender from the South Coast, and a dozer from Hopland Fire. 

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A major benefit of the strike team approach is the pre-packaged command structure that allows greater efficiency when responding to major incidents. Buckingham said the Incident Command Structure used when responding to emergencies can complicate response. The proactive formation of strike teams creates one strike team leader in charge of a self-contained unit. That leader will report to the incident commander, and delegate duties to the team allowing a quicker response. 

A lone firefighter in the midst of the Hopkins Fire [Picture by Matt LaFever]

CAL FIRE Mendocino Unit’s Chief Luke Kendall told us the goal during times of enhanced fire-risk is to attack all incidents quickly and aggressively. He offered the Walker Fire, the recent wildfire that grew to 100 acres on Thursday afternoon, as an example of firefighting tactics used during high-risk conditions. “We stopped that fire at 100 acres because we were able to dump as much equipment on it as we did.” 

CAL FIRE, California’s state-wide firefighting agency, also forms strike teams in the face of elevated fire risk designed for immediate mobilization and response when called upon. CAL FIRE Mendocino Unit’s Chief Luke Kendall told us a strike team from here is currently assisting in Siskiyou County where the Mill Fire and the Mountain Fire ignited in the high temperatures of yesterday afternoon. 

With a higher chance of fires, Kendall told us CAL FIRE will staff dozers 24 hours per day, and staff firefighting aircraft starting at 8:00 a.m.

An air tanker drops fire retardant on the Walker Fire [Picture by Matt LaFever]

When wildfires flare up in the midst of this predicted heat, Kendall told us the flames will run faster and burn hotter hindering suppression efforts because personnel can only get so close. The fire’s intensity underscores the importance of hitting these with maximum resources as quickly as possible.

Both Buckingham and Kendall ask the Mendocino County public to be extremely mindful in the days ahead–check for chains dragging behind vehicles, any vegetation clearing should be completed in the early morning, and those camping in the backcountry should be extremely careful with campfires. 

With the conditions ripe for faster and hotter wildfires, Kendall said firefighters are prepared to be “Johnny on the spot.” 

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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