With an infusion of state funding earlier this year allowing the Orange County Fire Authority to double the size of its manual crews, it needs more space to house the specialty crews that walk the wilderness to clear the vegetation and help stop the advance of the flames.
Now, the OCFA has received an additional $16.95 million in government funds that will be used to secure the program’s own facilities and additional equipment.
“We have all heard it, seen it, felt it. We are now living in a year-round fire season with bigger and faster wildfires than we have ever seen,” said OCFA Fire Chief Brian Fennessy.
“It’s not a fire department problem,” he said of the need for support at various levels to deal with the ever-increasing fire risk seen in the state, “it’s a problem for us”.
Much of the front line, he said, is made up of firefighters.
When wildfires rage and people watch the flames on TV news, said Captain Thanh Nguyen, an OCFA spokesperson, helicopters dropping water and fire retardants attract a lot of attention. Warning. And they are doing a lot to help fight the fire. So are firefighters defending homes with water hoses and bulldozers digging up lines of dirt to create a perimeter.
“Manual teams are really important because they can go where bulldozers can’t,” Nguyen said, explaining how they can walk further into natural areas and help prevent a vegetation-fueled fire from spreading from uncontrollably.
“The whole idea” behind fighting a wildfire, he said, is to get in quickly and keep most of the burning vegetation within 10 acres.
“When we have a wildfire,” Nguyen said, “we throw everyone on it.”
The OCFA began with a seasonal manual crew pilot program which, in 2011, became permanent and year-round.
In 2015, he added a second seasonal crew of 10 members. Now all 20 are permanent and share the week of service, Nguyen said.
Throughout the year, manual crews dedicated approximately 5,000 hours to fire prevention, working in the wilderness areas under OCFA jurisdiction to cut vegetation, keep trails open, conduct prescribed burns and further reduce the risk of fire, Nguyen said.
They respond to the outbreak of a fire anywhere in the county.
“They saved homes, they saved communities, and they saved lives,” Fennessy said. “And they risked everything doing it.”
Crews now operate out of Trabuco Canyon Station 18 and their equipment is spread across multiple facilities in the area. But there is also a full-time engine company that uses Station 18.
The new facility funded by the $16.95 million raised with the help of Senator Dave Min will house the manual crew program and its equipment, which includes four-wheeled vehicles that can transport off-road crews to that the terrain forces them to continue on foot with all their equipment.
The best location for the new station is still being identified. Nguyen said.
“Your job is obviously dangerous in itself and although we can provide you with the funding to help provide you with the equipment and facilities you need, we are not the ones putting lives and bodies on the line,” Min said at a recent event announcing the funding. “So really, I’m grateful for all the work you do, the service you give to our communities.”