First responders during California wildfires

Who are they, and what did they do?

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Some states have tornadoes. Others have cyclones. Sand storms. Typhoons. Tsunamis. 

In California, we have wildfires.

Last year, one day after the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting, the sky turned an eerie shade of orange. The air spread the smell of a burnt sort of something. But it was not the kind that a piece of steak creates when sizzling on the grill. Nor was it the smell of a piece of toast that was forgotten in the toaster. 

It was the smell of hills and houses burning. And while everyone was trying to escape the blaze, some stayed for the community.

The first responders went and plunged into the fires when the public evacuated. In a list from the Californian Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Woolsey fire is ranked the seventh most destructive wildfire in California history, having destroyed 96,949 acres of land, 1,643 structures and three lives.

According to the County of Los Angeles, more than 3,800 firefighters were deployed in total. But in the total number of first responders, there are other, sometimes forgotten forces to be tallied in. 

“We had to wear different hats all the time,” Sergeant Bill Hutton with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said.  

At the time of the Woolsey fire evacuations, the calm of the night was cut by the alarming sound of sirens. A good portion of these belonged to the local police and sheriff department officers on duty. The After Action Review of the Woolsey Fire Incident shows that 6,400 law enforcement officers were assigned to the fire from start to finish.

One of them was Sergeant Bill Hutton.

After the Borderline shooting, Hutton was at the reunification center in the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, located on 1375 E. Janss Road.

“Families were being notified that their loved ones were murdered within the Borderline shooting,” Hutton said. “Right after that, the fires erupted and I ended up leaving the reunification center after the death notifications and started with evacuations in Newbury Park.”

He went to the Vallecito mobile homes where he said the fire was creeping down the hill.

“Obviously a lot of sadness was going on within our county at the time and played a major role in law enforcement,” Hutton said. “We had to wear different (hats) all the time.”

Hutton was also responsible for ensuring the safety of his own team.

“[I work to make] sure that we don’t over-work our personnel, everybody will work as a team and just make sure that we stick with our assignments,” Hutton said. “As a supervisor I will make sure that I schedule things accordingly so people are well-rested and we can utilize all personnel.”

Overtime has become an increasing problem in law enforcement. In an audit by the San Jose City Council, the average overtime of sworn personnel has increased by 225 hours per calendar year in the years between 2008 and 2015. 

The Woolsey fire was a different scenario. On social media, there was a seemingly infinite amount of pictures of first responders finding sleep wherever they could, laying on the ground with the heavy same weight of the equipment still present.

All first responders worked hand in hand. The major roles that the police and sheriff department played in the fire were assisting with evacuations, traffic control, shelters and information, according to Hutton.

“During a major fire, we have what is called ‘command posts.’ We have central locations that are split up between the fire department and the Sheriff’s Office,” Hutton said.

Hutton remembers from the time of the Thomas fires that information would be shared by simply walking over to the other command post. Being a police officer during the Woolsey fire meant moving with the fire.

“We are mobile and moving with the fires,” Hutton said. “As it continues to move we are continuing to close down roads so law enforcement and fire [firefighters] can work together and don’t have to worry about traffic and pedestrians in the area.”

“CERT is grassroots. Neighbor to neighbor,” said Diane Starzak, the Oak Park CERT coordinator.

The Community Emergency Response Team offers training to help citizens prepare before a disaster strikes, according to Starzak.

“We were all impacted really quickly and the first thing you do as a CERT trained person is you take care of yourself, your family and your immediate neighbours if possible,” Starzak said.

During the Woolsey fire, the CERT team was not deployed. Diane Starzak had to evacuate Oak Park just as all of the residents. CERT members are trained in search & rescue, utility mitigation, disaster first aid and preparedness.

“[Assisting] would not have been appropriate at that time because we all had to get out of Oak Park,” Starzak said.

The role of CERT during that time was more preparatory-based. Oak Park residents have the opportunity to take a six-week training course through the Ventura County Fire Department. Starzak hopes that people take this training to heart and leave with a ready evacuation plan.

According to Ready.Gov, there are over 600,000 CERT trained individuals since the program became national. In California, the CERT course also incorporates wildfire readiness. The participants are armored with knowledge.

“We hope that everyone takes advantage of the information available: Ready Ventura County, Red Cross, and FEMA.” Starzak said. “It’s all out there, and up to the individual to take advantage of it.

Whether or not the CERT team is deployed depends on the call made by the Sheriff’s department, the Office of Emergency Services and the fire department in charge. The Oak Park CERT has been utilized in the past to assist with evacuations.

“When they are looking at the behavior of the wildfire and anticipating what direction it’s going, they’re working with the national weather service,” Starzak said. “When they are making those determinations and they feel that this particular neighborhood needs to evacuate, they will contact the Red Cross set up evacuation centers and Red Cross shelters. The word goes out again as well as it can.”

Part of being a CERT member being informed. Receiving timely alerts are essential during a disaster and residents are encouraged to sign up for VCAlert.org

Stay connected and informed,” Starzak said. “As a responsible citizen, if conditions are worsening, don’t wait- evacuate early.”