Firefighters descended on the Lake Hills community in El Dorado Hills Saturday as 18 agencies — law enforcement, fire districts and animal control — held a massive training exercise, fighting an imaginary fire and evacuating residents from more than 250 homes.
El Dorado Fire Engineer Matt Belleci spent the past year planning the exercise that outlined nine training areas, including hose lays, inmate hand crew orientation, bulldozer safety and a simulation of rescuing a home’s occupant. The average division took between 30 and 45 minutes to complete, Belleci said.
The community was picked for its high fire threat due to the age of the houses, thick vegetation, narrow streets and position of Folsom Lake, which would cause winds to fuel the flames. Belleci said he put the “divisions in strategic locations” with all this mind.
“It’s ironic we’re training on a day like today, a red flag day,” he said, meaning there was a high chance of fires. “We have 20 to 30 mph winds; the humidity is in the single digits. All the division are on alert.” Given a spark, the training could have easily turned into the real thing, he said, and the conditions would cause the fire to “burn really well.”
The training included learning how to use other agencies’ equipment, learning what to expect from inmate fire crews and, in turn, what they expect from firefighters, communicating with a helicopter on loan from Sacramento Metro Fire Department and learning to use “popcorn cookers” — a worst-case scenario piece of equipment meant to save a firefighter’s life if the flames overtake them. A proctor would observe how the trainee would use a practice device and ask questions. Practice is important, Belleci said, as the devices are “very expensive” but necessary; he compared it as being as essential as a police officer’s gun.
Another division saw 600 feet of hose being laid out next to 1470 Planeta Way, behind where the imaginary fire started and where Belleci fought his first real fire. It was one of 40 homes that the owners gave full permission to use as the agencies needed. Around the Planeta Way house, firefighters, assisted by an Explorers Post, hauled 100 feet of hose weighing 40 pounds on their backs, connecting it back to a fire engine and spraying water as they ran through the brush.
A mobile division attacked the fire along Torero Way, running and spraying the side of the road in a simulation of spot fires while a fire engine supplying water drove behind the trainees.
While divisions were running drills and training the American Red Cross, Noah’s Wish and People for Animal Welfare of El Dorado County taught residents what to do at a simulated evacuation station in the Oak Ridge High School parking lot.
Kevin Oliver of Noah’s Wish said the organization’s volunteers were trained to ride with Animal Service so more rigs would be able to respond to an emergency situation. “We’re trained to integrate into disaster situations,” he said, noting that they, alongside organizations like PAWED, are a sort of cavalry for the county agency. They have an agreement that Noah’s Wish will respond within 72 hours if additional help is needed.
American Red Cross’ David Kennedy also drilled some of the organizations’ members while educating residents, handing out medical kits and disaster supplies. The turnout was better than he said he expected.
“I expected about 80 people and we’ve had 125 evacuees, not counting kids, come through,” Kennedy said.
For Belleci, the exercise was a success.
“The last year has paid dividends,” he said. “For the public, the biggest thing is to know what to expect. They got a taste of what could happen.” Another goal — making sure the agencies had a plan — was also fulfilled. “The goal was to get the drill done, pre-plan the area so El Dorado Hills Fire and other local first responders would know what to expect. We now have iPads in the firetrucks, so if an agency doesn’t know the plan a captain can print out copies of the plans, maps, (radio) frequencies, etc.”
Although the day began with a technical glitch — the reverse-911 call that was meant to alert the residents for the simulated evacuation was delayed by 10 minutes — everything else was “going phenomenal,” Belleci said. “It’s going off without a hitch. You expect failures (with training), but there have been relatively few.”