Hand crew returns to OC Fire Authority

A hand crew takes a break during the 2007 Santiago Fire in Orange County.
A hand crew takes a break during the 2007 Santiago Fire in Orange County.
Photo courtesy the Orange County Fire Authority

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The Orange County Fire Authority is entering this fire season with extra feet on the ground, compared to last year. The agency has a hand crew once again.

Last year, the Orange County Fire Authority eliminated the hand crew because of budget cuts.

Cutting the crew saved $1.7 million. But this year, the department decided the hand crew was a priority and brought it back.

"You will typically see the hand crews in numbers around 20, lined up, hiking in together, with tools in their hands. Those are the hand crews," says OCFA Superintendent/Captain John Lamb, who's in charge of the department's hand crew.

They often hike into areas that bulldozers and fire engines with hoses can't get to. Once there, they do tedious, back-breaking work.

"The biggest thing we do is attack the fire, instead of with water, with hand tools," Lamb says. "And if you’ll ever notice, around a vegetation fire, there’ll be what we call a “scrape” – bare, mineral earth where the fuels have been scraped away — cut and scraped away to provide a small, mini-fire break."

Lamb says that the unit keeps his agency from relying on others when a big fire breaks out.

"The downside with relying on outside agencies for crews — and any resource, for that matter — is if they're busy and committed on their OWN fires – which is usually the case once fires start breaking throughout the state or the region," he says. "They're being utilized on those fires and [if] we have a need, if we don't have our own, the availability is going to be depleted."

Lamb has split down this year's OCFA hand crew, so the department has coverage seven days a week. There's also still a reserve hand crew, just in case.