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Coalition unites to extinguish base wildland fires

An aircraft drops fire retardant during a fire which swept through portions of South Base, Sept. 20, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Vandenberg personnel, alongside community partners and a specialized incident management team, have worked to extinguish five separate wildland fires, here, since Sept. 17. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Phipps/Released)

An aircraft drops fire retardant during a fire which swept through portions of South Base, Sept. 20, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Vandenberg personnel, alongside community partners and a specialized incident management team, have worked to extinguish five separate wildland fires, here, since Sept. 17. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Phipps/Released)

A speed limit sign on South Vandenberg is shown burned after a significant fire swept through portions of South Base, Sept. 20, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Vandenberg personnel, alongside community partners and a specialized incident management team, have worked to extinguish five separate wildland fires, here, since Sept. 17. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Staff Sgt. Shane Phipps/Released)

A speed limit sign on South Vandenberg is shown burned after a significant fire swept through portions of South Base, Sept. 20, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Vandenberg personnel, alongside community partners and a specialized incident management team, have worked to extinguish five separate wildland fires, here, since Sept. 17. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Staff Sgt. Shane Phipps/Released)

Electricians work to deengage power after a fire swept through portions of South Base, Sept. 19, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Vandenberg personnel, alongside community partners and a specialized incident management team, have worked to extinguish five separate wildland fires, here, since Sept. 17. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Keith Martineau/Released)

Electricians work to deengage power after a fire swept through portions of South Base, Sept. 19, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Vandenberg personnel, alongside community partners and a specialized incident management team, have worked to extinguish five separate wildland fires, here, since Sept. 17. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Keith Martineau/Released)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Vandenberg personnel, alongside community partners and a specialized incident management team, have worked to extinguish five separate wildland fires, here, since Sept. 17.

Following the significantly larger fire on South Vandenberg, which burned more than 12,500 acres, the four subsequent fires on North Base were controlled quickly – in part due to an increased presence of resources brought in to battle the South Base blaze.

“There are different levels of emergencies,” said Michael Strawhun, United States Forest Service Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team, deputy incident commander. “On the initial attack of this fire it was considered a Type III incident, which means it could be handled at the local level with Vandenberg firefighters. There was a point where the fire had grown and the local team couldn’t handle it themselves, so they put a call out and we responded.”

Beyond the initial attack of the fire, Vandenberg firefighters also smoothly integrated and coordinated with personnel from various departments around California – playing a pivotal role in the fire’s eventual containment.

“We were responsible for the initial attack and since then we filled in jobs throughout the rest of the fire,” said Jesse Hendricks, 30th Civil Engineer Squadron Hot Shot crew superintendent. “Our engines worked direct lines and our crews worked to protect facilities down range of the firefight. What we have in place is called the Incident Command System, which we all follow. All the job descriptions are the same across the board for all the agencies. This way our Vandenberg firefighters can smoothly work alongside the outside departments, everyone knows their roles and responsibilities, and it all just flows really well.”

Joining the coalition of firefighters from around the state, the 30th CES electricians also played a crucial role in the firefight.

“One of our primary roles as electricians is to ensure the safety of fire personnel and first responders by de-energizing all high voltage circuits throughout the affected and potential affected areas that could become ignited,” said Staff Sgt. Garrett Oats, 30th CES electrical systems journeyman. “Our high voltage lines are spread all throughout Vandenberg. With the majority of our poles being wooden and having a high risk of becoming burnt or destroyed by fires, we have to make sure the circuits are de-energized. That way, when fire personnel come through with trucks, dozers and ground personnel, they have no potential of becoming electrocuted from falling poles and high voltage lines. When this type of work comes into play we have to drive out to these areas and visually verify that all affected circuits are de-energized and safely removed from normal operation at our substations.”

As the fire’s intensity progressed to a Type II incident, one of seven specialized, incident management Type II teams in the state, came to Vandenberg’s aid – bringing an abundance of resources to include, food, equipment and an array of personnel.

“There are seven Type II incident management teams in California,” said Strawhun. “Our incident management team consists of numerous agencies, and the team as a whole operates under the Incident Command System. The operations section comprises the firefighters, aircraft and leadership. The logistics section includes food, gas and supplies. There’s also a finance section which makes sure everyone gets paid and pays the bills. Additionally, there’s a planning section, which includes fire behavior analysts and weather folks. Finally, we have the command staff which includes safety officers and information officers.

Before the cavalry of fire support arrived, Vandenberg firefighters -- including its small five-man Hot Shot crew -- faced the inferno alone and made a dramatic stand defending Firestation-4 as flames came precariously close to the facility’s walls.

“It was actually Vandenberg firefighters who defended their Firestation-4 on the first day,” said Strawhun. “It was before we arrived and they did an outstanding job.”

In addition to securing Firestation-4, crews managed to protect every single facility within the more than 12,500 acre burn area.

“I think the reason we were able to protect all the facilities as well as we did can just be attributed to training and experience,” said Hendricks. “A lot of the Vandenberg fire personnel started with the Hot Shot crew, we get out all over the country fighting fires, and helping to defend structures. So, that’s where a lot of that experience comes from. The firefight at station-4 was a situation where we came together and, with enough resources and experience, everyone worked together and got it done safely.”

With so many different organizations working together to battle the fire, communication was an essential component and will continue to be essential as crews continue to work to clean-up the affected areas.

“When major fires like this take place, communication is imperative during the initial hours and throughout the whole extinguishing process,” said Oats. “The electric shop responded within the first hour and quickly began removing high voltage circuits from service while conducting switching operations to ensure high priority buildings could still have commercial power and continue their operations. As soon as we get the thumbs up, the electric shop will have even more work ahead of us installing, re-constructing and powering up all the high voltage circuits that have been affected by this fire – and when that time comes, we’ll be ready.”

When the Type II team joined the fight, their delegation of authority allowed Vandenberg leaders to articulate the base’s highest priorities – allowing the team to concentrate resources on protecting the most crucial structures.

“Whoever we work for, in this case the Air Force and the fire department here, gives us a delegation of authority and lets us know where to focus our priorities,” said Strawhun. “When we came in, we knew the launch complexes were primary priorities to defend, as well as all the support infrastructure.”

Coincidentally, Strawhun began his firefighting career as a Hot-Shot on Vandenberg more than three decades ago. This proved valuable to the smooth integration and familiarization of the outside Type II team with Vandenberg’s layout and organizational structure.

“I was a Hot Shot here on Vandenberg 32 years ago and that’s where I really learned the job,” said Strawhun. “The time I spent at Vandenberg when I was a youngster, made me the firefighter I am today. The basics in firefighting come when you first join, and the leadership I got here at that time truly set me on a course to become an incident commander now, 32 years later. Also, when I was a firefighter here, we hiked the canyon, where this particular fire burned. So, when I found out we were coming here, I felt like I knew the country, I knew the history and I had walked the land. I was here during the shuttle program, and I actually helped cut line around SLC-6.”

For the Type II team’s leadership, success can be attributed to a unique combination of human skill and organization.

“It’s been a true pleasure and honor to work with everyone in the team,” said Strawhun. “It takes all of us to work together to do the job. It’s a very satisfying career and lifestyle. The people I work with are the best at what they do. My operations chiefs are great firefighters and from the day they get on scene they project how long they think it will take and what we will do to engage this and be successful.”