Monday, June 23, 2008

Another day, another fire...

This routine is getting old. Fire after fire. Today we had another one. It was small, along the west side of highway 17, and messed up my afternoon, but fortunately it didn't spread quickly and was swamped with equipment rapidly.

The fallout from some conversations that followed, though, is more important. Some of you reading this blog may not have thought about this, so it's time I wrote it up.

The unfortunate fact is that fires happen. They happen with some frequency, year round, regardless of weather, holidays, or anything else.

Right now the entire Loma Prieta community is on edge thanks to the three big fires we've had in the area, and to the many other big fires burning in northern California. But we wouldn't be as edgy in the rainy season, for example, or even at this point in a "normal" fire season.

This is relevant because people who are worried go looking for data as quickly as they can. They hear helicopters or air tankers go overhead, or sirens going down the road, and they hit the web trying to find out where the fire is, for example. I know multiple people for whom this is true, so if you think I'm writing about you specifically, you're wrong.

In any event, the system doesn't always get news out that quickly. As I said, fires happen all the time, and not every house fire or small grass fire ever makes it to the paper or the web. Wildland fires have to get to some moderate size, use some significant resources, and/or threaten homes or businesses before they're going to appear on the CAL FIRE website with a name and maps. It simply wouldn't be practical to get that kind of data out about every fire that happens. There are simply too many of them.

Here's another example. When I was part of a crew covering Big Creek station the other day, we were told that we'd get relieved around midnight by an engine that was being made available. At 1am it hadn't arrived, but that's normal. Things always take longer than anticipated, and we were OK with that. But then we heard that several engines had been sent to a small fire up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This was the middle of the night, and they held that fire to less than an acre if my memory for the radio traffic serves. That fire was put out so quickly that it's likely no one had a chance to get it into the news cycle, or post anything about it to the web.

And I'd like to point out that even when news does get out quickly, some early media reports can be inaccurate. Remember the Summit Fire was originally said to be at the corner of Summit and Loma Prieta? There are at least two such intersections, and they are miles apart. The TV announced road closures in the wrong place and even the wrong location for the fire for some time.

Today's fire along 17 had some chaos in it's initial dispatch. Multiple people called in fires in various locations, and that information was given to the responding engines over the radio. Anyone with a scanner could hear it. In that initial confusion, fire crews were searching for fires on 17 south of Summit, at the junction of 17 and Summit, and all along Summit back to the Summit Store - 4.5 miles down the road.

That initial confusion will happen some times. In this case there's a store on 17 - called "Casa del 17" - that commuters might think of as "the store at 17 and Summit" or "the store near Summit", and such descriptions can get muddled easily, particularly in stressful conditions, like calling 911 in a moving car to report a fire.

But it all got sorted out quickly, with multiple people and engines checking the various areas to be sure that nothing was missed. And the fire itself was out before any property was lost or injuries happened. I'm sure the drivers on southbound 17 weren't happy with the road closure, but it was kept to a minimum and people were moving again pretty quickly.

Anyway, the first thing to do when confronted with a fire - or any other event of a similar nature - is to step back and assess what is going on. Take a deep breath and think it through. What do you really need to know? What is the best way to get that information? Early on in the case of a fire, your own eyes and ears may be the best and most reliable source of data you have. Follow that with a scanner that announces your local fire dispatch frequency, and after that try the websites of your local newspapers. Live TV coverage comes after that in my experience, but your mileage may vary.

I've got a few other posts planned on related topics. Alas, with all the fires we're having and my other workload, it may be a while before I can get to them.