Wildfires burning across California are stretching fire departments statewide to the limit.
“As the governor stated the other day, we’re in what’s called the new norm, explosive fire behavior and we get to a point at which all crews are all basically,” said CAL FIRE San Luis Obispo public information officer Clint Bullard. “You get to a point in each different unit, each different county throughout the state, which is minimum draw down.”
The draw down number is the level at which a department can no longer send any firefighter out of the area for mutual aid assistance.
Mutual aid is the system where fire agencies in California can borrow and share personnel and resources during times of need.
All departments must maintain an adequate level of staffing to ensure the proper level of service to its home area, plus have enough resources left to fight a major fire should one break out there.
State fire officials reported that due to several large-scale fires currently burning throughout California, more than 900 requests for engines were unfilled last week.
“The fewer resources on an incident, the more challenging it becomes,” said Bullard. “The incident commander may look at other options at that time such as increased air attacks and other options exist.”
According to Bullard, CAL FIRE SLO County is actively assisting with several fires, including the devastating Carr Fire in Shasta County and the Ferguson Fire in the Yosemite National Park area.
“Right now, we have quite a bit of people out, as well as dozers, engines, overhead personnel,” said Bullard. “We have approximately 60 people from CAL FIRE San Luis Obispo County and you can add another 80 to that from throughout the county when you include local government fire departments.”
With so many personnel away from home, it leaves CAL FIRE close to its draw down number. Bullard said the department actually reached the number last week.
“We hit that point here in San Luis Obispo County,” Bullard said. “The point at which we had a lot of crews, a lot of equipment out fighting fires throughout the state, north, south, over in the Yosemite area, with the Ferguson. We were stretched thin, but at no point did we go below what we felt comfortable providing here in the county.”
With so many firefighters and other fire staff out the county, personnel that remain must pick up the slack.
“It’s challenging,” said Bullard. “All days off are canceled for most personnel right now. People are working 24/7 throughout the day.”
Bullard added that the current situation with staffing may unfortunately not be a short-term issue. Instead, it might last for a prolonged period of time.
“Historically, the southern part of California doesn’t burn until late August into the fall time, so we still have several months ahead of us,” said Bullard.