Local Firefighters Off To Battle Santa Ana

October 12, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
For the first time this season Santa Ana winds are expected to stir up trouble in Southern California.Cal-Fire Battalion Chief Mark Watkins spent time in San Diego County last year fighting fires and horrific Santa Ana winds.

These winds are so severe they push fires straight through canyons and over homes and stir up fire tornados like this one captured on camera last October.

Watkins trains his team for wind events daily but warns the biggest challenge for firefighters is not the wind, its protecting homes.

"It's so much more populated in southern California the housing density is greater. There's a lot more homes in a tighter space than in central California," said Watkins.

Already a handful of homes have been destroyed in Angeles National Forest North of Los Angeles. Close to a thousand acres have burned so far. But firefighters could face their first true test this fire season: Santa Ana winds are back and expected to wreak havoc this week.

"The winds get quite warm and by doing that what's happened in recent years that's caused those fires to be so devastating because of the population growth in those interface areas," said Chris Christopherson, Cal Fire.

Christopherson said this group of 20 Cal-Fire firefighters will meet up with about 100 others from the Central valley and head south. Their mission is to reinforce other Cal-Fire operations and stop potential wildfire damage. Clearing brush and setting up fire breaks around homes will be their top priority.

If the winds do pick up Watkins and his group don't expect much help from the air. Flight crews are grounded when the wind reaches near 50 miles an hour.

Still Watkins is optimistic his experiences last year will help keep structures safe and his crew alive. "Tuned up ready to go trained hard this summer and going to put our skills to use."

Central Valley Cal-Fire teams will be stationed in the Riverside area. Depending on which way the wind blows...the teams will then receive their assignments. Until then, it's wait and see.

Santa Ana winds stirred up wildfires last year and the millions of dollars of damage in southern California. That's why a small local fire team is in Riverside ready to assist if a fire disaster strikes.

There is no longer a wildfire season. Cal Fire officials said the fight is on year-round. This blazer has already scorched close to one-thousand acres north of Los Angeles and destroyed several homes. Starting this week firefighters will have there first true test since last year: battling Santa Ana winds.

"The winds get quite warm and by doing that what's happened in recent years that's caused those fires to be so devastating because of the population growth in those interface areas," said Chris Christopherson.

Christopherson with Cal Fire warns fires that spread through canyons and devastated homes last year could easily happen again. That's why 120 Central Valley firefighters geared up Sunday morning to head south as reinforcement to other Cal Fire teams. But that does not mean there is a void locally.

"We have a comprehensive coverage plan that once equipment moves and goes somewhere else there's movement in place to come back and cover and fill those vacancies," said Christopherson.

One of the units headed south is led by battalion Chief Mark Watkins. He's counting on his experience last year fighting the dreaded Santa Ana winds to protect homes and keep his crew safe.

"The troops here are tuned up, ready to go, trained hard this summer and going to put our skills to use," said Watkins.

Last year many southern California residents were forced out of their fire damaged homes and into nearby football stadium or make-shift Red Cross shelters. Christopherson said there is a plan to handle that situation.

"One of the other things the governor's office has also done is moved trailers with cots and blankets down to that region in the event that there's a need of an evacuation center," said Christopherson.

The local Cal Fire unit is purely a precaution. They are anticipating wildfires could get out of control this week.



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