Newly established wildfire hand crews get specialized training, headquarters in San Jose

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Thursday's early-season wildfire in the East Bay is a stark reminder of what's to come. To prepare, newly established fire hand crews are getting specialized training now in the South Bay.

The teams are working on mitigating imminent fire threats and performing hazardous fuels reduction. It's a tall order for the two new hand crews that have spent their weekdays training in San Jose.

CAL FIRE, in cooperation with the California National Guard, formed "Task Force Rattlesnake." This created 13 hand crews which have been set up throughout the state.

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CAL FIRE's Santa Clara Unit, also known as CAL FIRE SCU, is taking on two.

"We haven't really had established hand crews in the past," CAL FIRE SCU Battalion Chief Cole Periera told ABC7 News. "So, with this entity, and being able to have these two fire crews, is going to be a huge asset for the surrounding communities and for the Santa Clara Unit itself."

Battalion Chief Periera spoke with ABC7 News outside the unit's South Bay headquarters, at the California National Guard Armory in San Jose.

He explained together, the teams consist of four CAL FIRE captains, eight seasonal firefighters and 48 guard members.

"We have helicopter pilots, we have mechanics, police officers," Periera elaborated. "So, it's all new to them."

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The crews are new and nevertheless crucial, considering California faces dry conditions and drought. Significant fire potential is also in the forecast.

"Every year that I've been around, I've always said, 'Oh, that was the busiest year I've been a part of,'" Periera added. "But we've been saying that more and more."

CAL FIRE SCU and others battled the SCU Lightning Complex which ignited last August. The fire was active for 44 days and torched nearly 400,000 acres across five counties.

Periera told ABC7 News, "Being one of the biggest fires in the state's history definitely brought challenges but opened our eyes up for the needs that we have here within the unit."

The men and women have been training for weeks, Monday through Friday.

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"On a day-to-day basis, these crews will go out Monday through Friday and sometimes into the weekend," Periera shared. "And we're focused, with the different cooperators that we have, on fuel reduction projects."

In the last two weeks, he said the team has taken on "anything from physical fitness, down to the basic hand-line construction," and more.

Battalion Chief Periera said every day is a small victory, as they continue working to get ahead of the wildfire season.

"A lot of them are aspiring to be firefighters in the future," he shared. "And we're just utilizing our folks that are career firemen, and trying to put that together and work as a team, and then be beneficial."

He said while the training day may end around 5 p.m., the crews can still be called on to respond.

Periera explained, "If we get a fire right now, they're rolling out of here."

He added this is a temporary assignment that is funded through the end of December.
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