Behind the Scenes with California's Firefighting Strike Teams

This week's Southern California firestorm will go down as one of the state's worst natural disasters. But it's been one of the better examples of teamwork and preparation. The state has been getting ready for something this big for several years. Cal Fire, the state's fire-firefighting agency, has put together ten command teams to respond to any natural disaster within an hour's notice. KPCC's Julie Small has spent the week with one of those teams in San Diego County.

Julie Small: 0700 briefing for the Harris Fire. Hundreds of firefighters and command staff are inside an enormous tent. Some stand; others sit. They all listen to the day's plan for fighting the fire.

[Sound of commander giving information on the fire]

Small: Roughly 50 firefighters from around the state are running this show. They give briefings in front of a huge topographical map of southern San Diego County. It shows where the fire lines are, where equipment's kept, who's assigned to what area.

[Sound of announcer doing roll call and assignments]

Small: These people volunteer and train to step in and handle command duties from logistics to crew safety – everything that's needed to tackle a fire. And there are all the other aspects of running a command center – like building the darn thing. The Harris Fire camp is on a small airfield just a few miles from where firefighters battle the blaze. Crews started with a dirt lot. They brought in portable toilets, showers, tents, a kitchen, and generators to run all the computers, faxes, and cell phone chargers ... and all the trailers.

Don Haldeman: Well, the check-in area is right here ...

Small: Don Haldeman processes the equipment and people.

Haldeman: When the resources come in, they check in. That way we know that they're here. And then from there, we can begin generating their assignments for where they're going to go.

Small: Haldeman gives the 1300 firefighters and support personnel working the Harris Fire food, shelter, and job assignments. Jon Mills pays them. He handles finance at the command center. He pays everyone, and he pays for everything.

Jon Mills: Sometimes fires like this can be a million dollars a day, and there's a lot of costs involved; we need to track those.

Small: Mills also advises firefighters if he thinks money could be better spent. Flying planes to drop retardant is real expensive and might not yield much return in a heavy wind.

Mills: They do what they need to do to put the fires out, and we advise them if there may be a cheaper way to do it.

Small: While all this is going on, someone has to keep the media and the public informed.

[Sound of Martin Johnson talking on the phone to newspaper staff]

Small: Martin Johnson is with Santa Barbara County Fire Department. On the command team, he's responsible for feeding information to reporters while trying to shield top commanders from having to answer so many questions they can't get their work done.

Johnson: We call it a fact sheet 'cause it's "just the facts." You know, it's like that "Dragnet" – "just the facts, ma'am. It shows the acreage, and the containment, the cause, which is under investigation, structures damaged and destroyed, injuries, fatalities – basic information that you can give to the media, you can give out to the public, take to evacuation centers and at least give people something that's official and that gives them an update.

Small: Martin says the command team circles the trailers so they can share information quickly – especially with this guy:

Chief Howard Windsor: What I want to make sure is that the maps and things got taken care of, for making sure that they get updated – (phone rings) Excuse me. (into phone:) Hey! Hey Rob! How you doing ...

Small: Chief Howard Windsor's day job is Deputy Fire Chief of Riverside County. At the Harris Fire camp, he's the incident commander.

Windsor: They call it closing the loop. You've gotta talk to somebody or you've got to have a deliverable of some kind, and so you've got to make sure that that deliverable or that action item gets taken care of. Especially on an incident like this where there's so many people that are impacted. You just know that if that were you – there but the grace of God – it could be any one of us, and you realize how you would want to be treated and to get information and to know. And so, we really try to work hard to do that. We have an evacuation center and we're meeting with those people twice a day.

[Sound of Windsor talking to an evacuee]

Small: Windsor assures evacuees he'll get the Highway Patrol to lift the lockdown so they can get to the store half a mile away.

Windsor: Somebody needs to take my number down. And if it isn't resolved, and you're having problems, you can call me directly.

Small: When Windsor says that, half a dozen people whip out pens and write down his number.

Windsor: Trust me. We'll work through it.

Howard Windsor's team is one of five in Southern California that rotates on call. They just happened to get this fire. But no one seems to mind. The commanders say they enjoy coming together to help the public – a little more smoothly every time.