Deployment of Mutual Aid Strike Teams Assist in Battling State’s Wildfires

With ripe conditions fueling devastating wildfires across the state, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) is relying on its mutual aid partnerships to mitigate the damage. Extending into a sixth year of historic drought and with extreme heat and tree mortality in California, wildfire dangers are increasing at an alarming rate.

Nearly two-dozen mutual aid strike teams alone have been deployed to battle the Blue Cut Fire in San Bernardino County. Due to the speed and intensity of the fire, which had already consumed nearly 32,000 acres and was only four percent contained as of this morning, initial responders quickly realized the severity of the situation and requested additional resources from Cal OES.

Aside from mutual aid resources, Cal OES also has more than 140 fire engines that can be deployed if a limited amount of assets are available.

“As the incident grows in complexity so does the mutual aid scale in size to be able to meet the need,” said Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci. “We balance that with logistic support through each level and then ultimately as the incident starts to scale down so does the demobilization process to send those resources back to their home jurisdictions.”

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The first step in the mutual aid partnership during a disaster is to ask for assistance from the nearest region for additional resources. Once all the regions have assisted, Cal OES dips into its own fleet as well as reaches out to neighboring western states, often as far east as Utah and up north to Washington.

“There’s really no other program or system like it in the world,” said Ghilarducci. “We use it every day here in California.”

Currently, 50 out-of-state engines are dispersed to various fires in California. Firefighters from as far away as Guam and Australia, among others, have been called upon for assistance with previous disasters, all of which is coordinated through Cal OES.

There are 435 local government engines and 70 Cal OES engines actively battling numerous fires.

“This system is really built on a great partnership between local government and state and also our partners at the federal level,” said Ghilarducci. “It’s not just for fires and fire suppression, we use it for earthquakes and floods and terrorism events, so it’s a concert of coordinated efforts that is like being able to have this chess board of moving all of these resources around in an effective way.”

Another component of deploying mutual aid resources is often based on weather conditions. Dry lightning strikes are forecasted for various counties in the northern half of the state within the next week, prompting the need to potentially keep resources nearby.

Wind, heat and other elements are constantly being evaluated to determine the ideal course of action.

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“We want to make sure we have enough flex in the system that we can do immediate response for immediate need, initial attack and suppression activities,” said Ghilarducci. “and then we can bolster that up with additional resources with out of state.”

Thousands of residents were evacuated from San Bernardino County due to the Blue Cut Fire. A state of emergency was declared by Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. on August 16.

A day earlier, a state of emergency was proclaimed for the Chimney Fire, about 15 miles west of Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County. The Chimney Fire has burned 8,300 acres and destroyed 32 single residences. Containment was at 30 percent.

The Clayton Fire in Lake County, which Ghilarducci toured Tuesday along with Cal OES Chief Deputy Director Nancy Ward and local officials, at the time had destroyed 175 structures and burned nearly 4,000 acres.

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With 60 percent containment, the Soberanes Fire has scorched nearly 80,000 acres and destroyed 57 single residences in Monterey County. The Mineral Fire in Fresno County is almost fully contained after burning slightly more than 7,000 acres, just eight miles west of Coalinga.

Some strike teams had to divert from the Blue Cut Fire once the Cedar Fire in Kern County broke out near Lake Isabella. The Cedar Fire was just five percent contained and had burned more than 1,600 acres as of this morning.

“All of them are calling for resources and so one of the other things we do at OES is we are balancing the system to ensure that the priorities are met,” Ghilarducci said. “Each fire has a different set of prioritization based on threat to life and property first and then environment and critical infrastructure, and so we are constantly balancing that out as to where we send the resources.”


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Jonathan Gudel

Jonathan Gudel is a Public Information Officer for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). Since joining Cal OES, he has assisted in the response and recovery efforts of the Aliso Canyon Gas Leak, the state's historic drought, the Oroville Dam Emergency Spillway Incident, unprecedented winter storms in 2017, the October (Sonoma County) and December (Santa Barbara County) 2017 wildfires, and statewide wildfire siege in 2018 . Previously, he worked in the newspaper industry for 12 years.

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