The timing is right because of the current dry conditions. The exercise is taking place in the Lexington Basin in Vasona Lake County Park. Preparedness is crucial for fighting wildland fires and fire season is already upon us, so for the past two days, firefighters from all over Santa Clara County have been in training.
"They've got about a 5-acre fire that's moving that direction and up towards your community. It's making small uphill runs," San Jose Fire Capt. Steve Forman explained to a crew Tuesday. It was only a drill, but an important one this year with fire danger high. 125 firefighters trained in the hills above Los Gatos after homeowners gave them permission to be on their property. The firefighters are from departments and agencies across Santa Clara County.
The scene there was typical: Tinder-dry grass and steep hills with expensive homes along the ridge top. Firefighters needed to make critical decisions as they arrived and sized up the potential for disaster. "How fast is the fire going to get up there? What can I do with what apparatus I have on hand right now before the fire gets to that house?" Battalion Chief Kendall Pearson explained.
With experience comes greater flexibility and responsibility as four-unit task forces and five-rig strike teams arrived on scene ahead of management-level command staff with their battle plans. "We give them an area to work in or they find an area to work in, and they go to work and they make those decisions on their own. Even coming down to if you have an area of 25 houses and you only have five fire trucks, you may give an individual captain five houses," Pearson said.
This particular exercise is focused on structure protection. Firefighters on the ground got air support from helicopters dropping water and fixed-wing aircraft that serve as spotters. Other aspects of the training focused on tactical scenarios, logistics, the deployment of prison fire crews, and the evacuation of the elderly or infirm, and horses.
Firefighters are also using what appears to be a low-tech device, a sandbox with wood shavings that can be laid out as a replica of an actual wildland fire. Eyedroppers are used to extinguish flames. Toy helicopters and planes replicate air support. CAL FIRE has been using the sandbox for training for over 40 years, but this is the first time it's being used in Santa Clara County. "Simple things, like just a sandbox, really creates a good scenario to run through and come up with strategy and tactics, and come up with other ideas on how to suppress a fire," Battalion Chief and CAL FIRE Training Officer Nick Ciardella said.
125 more fighters will undergo training on Wednesday. Many residents in the area remember the Lexington Fire a few years ago and no one wants to relive that disaster.