Wildland-a-palooza: Firefighters battle pretend ridge fire
El Dorado Hills was ablaze June 25, at least in the imaginations of approximately 50 firefighters and volunteers from around the region brushing up on their brush fire battle tactics in a seven-plus hour training exercise dubbed “Wildland-a-palooza,” the third annual such event hosted by the El Dorado Hills Fire District.
Neighbors east of Ridgeview who read Village Life knew it was all an exercise. Others called 911 wondering why their ridge was under siege.
Some of these same firefighters would be battling a very real El Dorado Hills wildland and structure fire 52 hours later on Vista Mar Drive.
Veteran volunteers Todd Thalhamer and Mike Ropollo, both lieutenants, coordinated the exercise and concocted a nightmare scenario — a raging wildfire storming up the westernmost ridge in El Dorado Hills, devouring the steep brushy terrain on a windy day, jumping streets and fire lines and threatening houses in the affluent “Promontory” neighborhood west of Ridgeview.
One advantage of hosting the exercise was giving neighboring agencies a street-level view of El Dorado Hills’ mix of steep, dry brush and million-plus dollar homes.
The scenario assumed support from a Sac Metro helicopter and a Cal Fire bulldozer, but not before the fire spotted all over the ridge.
Volunteers who don’t often get their hands on the hoses relished the rare opportunity to use the tools of the trade, working beside paid staff.
Training exercises were set up around a makeshift Incident Command Center, the “Power IC” at the intersection of Powers and Beatty drives.
This reporter and five firefighters dressed in layers of unflatteringly bright yellow flame retardant gear, including helmet and gloves, piled into Engine E-385.
“Drink water, wear all your PPE (personal protective equipment) and watch out for snakes,” advised Thalhamer before dispatching us to our first exercise. The day was already warm at 7 a.m.
I was seated on the edge of a hinged jump-seat by the door, crammed in front of harness-mounted air tanks stowed where my back wanted to be.
Our bloated engine company was led by Engineer Rob Karnow, an acting captain that day. Four eager volunteers assisted him. All had been through multiple iterations of similar training in the past, so it was only new to the sweating reporter with the sleeves of his fire-retardant jacket rolled up — a flagrant violation of training protocols.
Volunteer Dion Nugent has a successful software company yet still makes time to volunteer. He represents one end of the volunteer spectrum. “For guys like me it’s a passion, a glorified hobby, but guys like Ray here are the future of the department.”
Raymond Phillips is a student at Sacramento State who hopes to make a career out of the fire service.
Both have internalized the “10s and 18s,” the 10 standard fire orders and 18 “watchout” situations learned the hard way — from fatalities, entrapment or near misses.
Over the next six hours we took the fight to the fire, cut lines, laid hose lines, doused the leading edge of the fire in a “mobile attack,” protecting structures and identifying escape routes and safe harbors.
They patiently explained the philosophy and strategy of their actions while I asked questions, took pictures and sought shade.
Recently retired Capt. Mike Wilson Mike Wilson oversaw the structure protection exercise, reminding us that we were in the “I-Zone,” the urban wildland interface. Our job was to protect a seemingly abandoned home from an oncoming fire surge.
Wilson explained that the structure’s dominant characteristic was its vacancy. “That takes the life hazards out of the way, except for us.”
The overgrown weeds were deemed “light flashy fuel” that would quickly burn and, once blackened, might even provide a good defense.
“Keep in mind rapid deployment,” preached Wilson. “Take care of your problem here and get back in service and ready to move again … Things can go bad very quickly.”
We identified an escape route through a weak section of fence. Check.
A neighbor’s pool was the nearest water source. Check.
The back patio was a sheltered safety zone. Check.
Be ready for stampeding snakes and rats. Hold on there.
Wilson warned us that a fire rising out of a canyon herds the wildlife uphill, including mass migrations of snakes and especially rats.
We also practiced “drafting,” the practice of filling our tanker with water from a pool, pond or river.
Amidst distinctly El Dorado Hills roadside litter that included merlot and sake bottles, we sucked a couple hundred gallons from an emergency water source called a “pumpkin,” a large collapsible orange plastic tub that serves as a temporary reservoir. A helicopter can drop and even refill a pumpkin, providing firefighters on the ground with water even when there are no nearby hydrants.
As the scenario unfolded we practiced “bump-and-run” tactics, attacking spot fires before they could damage structures. The volunteers jumped out, tossed our “throw roll” and deployed the hoses with few wasted steps. Engineer-in-training Nugent readied our on-board water supply under Karnow’s close scrutiny.
We appeared to be working like a well oiled machine, but there was no rose-color in Karnow’s wrap around shades. He cited improvements in technique and strategy at every turn, his non-stop dialogue chock full of the pertinent “10s and 18s.”
“Initial attack is key in this business,” he said. “If the first engine can keep the fire small it makes everything easier and safer.”
We established a safe “anchor point” by dousing an area by the curb, then worked our way into a pretend burning field, through the rough terrain. The hose had to be held on shoulders to keep it from getting tangled in the rocks and brush.
After dousing some bushes and boulders, we bled off enough water to quickly drape the battered and flaccid cotton hoses around valves and connectors at the back of the engine and dashed off to another spot fire.
The handline drill put us in a hot brushy field, facing a fire advancing uphill toward us. Our mission was to chop and scrape a fire break, a dirt swath half-again as wide as the height of the weeds.
“Stay low and use core muscles … This needs to be asses and elbows,” barked a Sac Metro instructor who stood over us like a prison guard on a road gang.
In fact, inmate backsides and elbows are often called upon to cut fire lines in big fires, he said, marching into dangerous terrain armed only with specialized scrapers and choppers.
A chopper of a different sort soon appeared on the horizon. Sac Metro’s copter issued a warning siren before dropping 700 gallons of Folsom Lake just in front of us, a cool respite from the hot work.
El Dorado Hills Division Chief Brad Ballenger explained that water drops alone won’t put out a typical wildland fire. “Drops have to be supported,” he said. “It takes hand line construction, hose lines, firing operations, everything we’re doing out here today to put fires out.”
The scenario soon took a planned turn for the worse. The fire intensified and we faced immediate overrun. We were ordered to scramble for our lives, back up the steep hill to our safe zone, and crawl into our emergency shelters.
The volunteers quickly wrapped up like mummies in the fire-retardant bags that each carries on his belt, diving in with no tools, just water and radio. In a real emergency they would place a “mayday” call, request an air drop and check in with their higher power … not necessarily in that order.
Later in the day the bulldozer driver and helicopter pilot both each conducted sessions on how firefighters on the ground can work with them safely.
By the end of the day, pump valves had doused volunteers, one hose exploded and one under-hydrated volunteer suffered minor heat exhaustion in the emergency shelter exercise.
Ballenger surveyed the incident command post and stressed the importance of cooperatively working with neighboring districts. “Boots on the ground is what counts,” he said. “These guys with the hoses and shovels keep the community safe. Fires don’t go out by talking on radios and driving around in SUVs.”
Chief Dave Roberts called the exercise “a chance for us to work together, work out the radio issues and get a chance to put some faces behind the names.”
“Paid crews are always training together,” added Thalhamer. “This was a great way for us volunteers to put our crews together for the season.”