FAIRFIELD — Sometimes even those who come to the rescue need to call for help.
When that happens to California’s firefighters, there’s a system in place that is a model for the rest of the country.
It’s a system that has worked well for decades and one that other states try to emulate. It’s also one that helped keep one of the worst disasters in Fairfield history from becoming far worse.
California’s fire mutual aid system provides a way for departments to request assistance when a fire or other incident gets out of hand or is beyond the capacity of the local fire department.
Locally, that has rarely been more apparent than when a seven-alarm fire ripped through a Fairfield neighborhood at the end of August, destroying five homes along Marigold Drive, damaging 10 others and threatening far more.
The fire drew more than 200 firefighters from all over the region and from as far away as Santa Clara County.
“It’s huge, just the local resources we got from the county was big. That was seven alarms. I was just looking at the numbers, I’m not even sure how many rigs we got,” said Fairfield Fire Battalion Chief Bob Stoffel.
As quickly as that fire got out of hand, Stoffel said the Fairfield Fire Department knew right away it would need help, and the call went out.
Meanwhile, some help just appeared.
“We had a Santa Clara (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) strike team coming (down Interstate) 80, home from the fires up north, where I was (assigned) before this and they stopped to help right away. They saw the smoke and had to take action,” Stoffel said. “We plugged them into the mix, they went into the mix seamlessly. Then we called Yolo County, we got five engines and a leader from them. Contra Costa, we got five engines and a leader from them and then five engines and a leader from Cal Fire Lake-Napa. We had 19 engines from outside the county that were there immediately.”
That’s in addition to crews from Travis Air Force Base, Vacaville, Vallejo, Benicia, Suisun City, Vacaville Fire Protection District, Suisun Fire Protection District and a host of other Solano County departments.
“We stripped the county down pretty bare for that fire just because of the need and how fast it was moving,” Stoffel said. “We’re able to reach out to neighboring counties without going through a bigger system and just get five engines, and they’re immediate need, so they’re coming as fast as they can.”
It’s a system that works statewide as well.
Local crews spent parts of the summer deployed to several of the large wildfires that ravaged Northern California.
Stoffel spent a couple of weeks as a division group supervisor on the Swedes Fire outside of Oroville. In addition, the county sent crews and equipment to the massive Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park and later to the Morgan Fire at Mount Diablo.
“We have a very good system. The rest of country looks to us,” said Aaron McAlister, Dixon fire chief and Solano County mutual aid coordinator. “And it works. At the Fairfield incident, I called and requested strike teams from neighboring counties. Yolo and Contra Costa and they were there. We put a lot of folks in there in a hurry.”
As good as the system has been, it could be better.
“The thing that hinders some of the in-county stuff is that we all have our own different dispatch centers,” Stoffel said. “Some agencies will call Solano and they’ve got to call Fairfield, who’s got to call and get a hold of the (incident commander). So there’s a lot of hands in the pie there. So that can slow things down.”
When reaching out to other counties, it’s a bit easier.
“The nice thing is we can go right to Contra Costa and ask them,” Stoffel said. “Everyone wants to help out.”
Even after such a massive mobilization as the Marigold Drive fire, the county has to be ready to help out elsewhere.
“Several days later we were over in Schell-Vista on (a) propane explosion, they took an engine from Fairfield and five from the county and sent them over there prior to sending them to Mount Diablo,” Stoffel said.
So it’s a constant shifting of resources.
“You can’t staff every day for Marigold,” Stoffel said. “That happens once in a career.”
Instead, each department makes do and knows that help is at hand when needed.
“You staff the best you can for every day, and when we have a fire you know you can call Vacaville or Suisun City or Cordelia and we bring them right to the scene and work with us,” Stoffel said. “And if it gets bigger than that, we can draw down a little bit from the county, but if it gets outside of that . . .”
It’s up to each department to be ready to go.
“There’s special training and certification that needs to be signed off through the state, mandatory training,” Fairfield Fire Chief Tony Velasquez said. “There’s special equipment, special modifications to the equipment that we respond with. We definitely, as far as our personnel, do everything we are supposed to do.”
It’s crucial to remain up to date as well.
“We always make sure we get our training and have the best equipment,” he said.
While deploying resources to out-of-town incidents costs each department money, at least some gets reimbursed.
“When they go out (on wildfires), these are requested by the state, the city is reimbursed for all expenses,” the chief said, noting that the money to send equipment and personnel out initially comes from the department’s budget. “We are reimbursed for personnel and equipment.”
There’s no choice involved as far as being ready for a wildfire deployment.
“It’s all part of their required training,” Velasquez said. “Anybody can get called. We can get called for a strike team within our own county. Vacaville, Suisun Valley, Napa, anywhere.”
He likened the county’s strike teams to the minutemen of the American Revolution: They need to be ready to deploy at a moment’s notice if their brethren need help.
Reach Mike Corpos at 427-6979 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mcorposdr.