Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

California Battling Fire and Water as It Hones Its Disaster Response

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

California Battling Fire and Water as It Hones Its Disaster Response

Article excerpt

The twin perils of fires and floods are hitting both ends of California at the same time.

With at least 20 simultaneous wildfires burning in the north, prompting evacuations and a state-of-emergency declaration from Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Saturday, flashflood warnings have been issued across several counties in the south.

No stranger to disaster, the state is responding with a studied coordination of local, state, federal and volunteer responders, including the resources of a National Guard that is back to full strength at home.

"I would tell you that, fortunately for us, we are drawing on decades of experience of dealing with floods, fires, mudslides - everything that could happen over 158,000 square miles of terrain from below sea level, to nearly three miles high," says Kim Zagaris, fire and rescue chief at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Should these conflagrations and floods not be contained by current personnel and equipment, the state has contingency plans, including multistate fire compacts in which neighboring states send resources and a National Guard in the rare position of having all 22,000 members inside the state, back from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

No fewer than 74 local, state, and federal fire strike teams are already sharing strategy, tactics and resources, including 377 fire engines, 1,566 firefighters, and 14 Chinook, Blackhawk and Lakota helicopters, equipped with 660-gallon and 2,000-gallon water buckets to help fight the flames. Navy and Marine helicopters are being made available as well, Mr. Zagaris says.

CalFire, the state's fire agency, is currently training 240 National Guard troops to become on-the-ground hand crews, learning how to use hoses, dig ditches, and scale steep terrain with equipment.

California's historic drought has not only expanded the firefighting season, but made fires harder to put out once they are started. "We now have the situation where embers are floating out to between a half-mile to a mile-and-a-half ahead of these fires," says Zagaris.

"Fire behavior for the Oregon Gulch Fire was extreme with rapid rates of spread," said a statement posted on the official wildfire incident website. …

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