Fighting California Fires: From Glitzy Hollywood to Brushwood

With the dual challenge of wildfires and dense urban areas, the state's firefighters are a model of versatility.

The firefighters at Station 27 in Los Angeles have to be ready for almost any eventuality. Their territory includes the steep, tree- and brush-covered Hollywood Hills - the location of the famous "Hollywood" sign as well as hundreds of expensive homes packed along the twisting, and often narrow, hillside roads.

A mile and a half in the other direction, Station 27's crews must be ready to protect the glitzy, high-rise corridor of Sunset Boulevard and the studios of the motion-picture industry.

"You know the old saying, Jack of all trades and master of none? We have to be a master of all trades," says Captain Steve Ruda of the Los Angeles Fire Department, whose jurisdiction is 470 square miles.

The versatility of the firefighters of Station 27 - and that of thousands of others in southern California - is usually put to the test this time of year, when hot, dry Santa Ana winds that sweep over the city can fan an errant spark into a huge brush fire within minutes.

The challenge may be even more severe this year, as the grasses and chaparral, especially thick after a drenching by El Nio, dry into kindling.

But these conditions, and their potential for significant losses in this densely populated area, have made firefighting here into something approaching performance art. Indeed, the state's system for flexibility and coordination in responding to such a wide range of fire emergencies has become world famous.

The key, fire officials say, is the state's Incident Command System, which allows staffs of federal, state, and local fire departments - who have long had mutual-aid agreements - to integrate rapidly and smoothly.

The system ensures everyone knows who is in charge and allows information and instructions to move quickly back and forth between crews and commanders. This efficiency is the result of extensive training and having a common language for equipment and maneuvers.

When needed, headquarters can be temporarily set up to coordinate various departments. On Tuesday, that meant a day off from school when California State University in San Marcos became a command post.

With the possible exception of parts of Australia and the Mediterranean Basin, "the wildland fire problem in California is as severe as any area in the world," says Jerry Geissler, assistant deputy director for fire protection with the California Department of Forestry (CDF).

Year-round brush-fire prevention includes brush clearance, a ban on wood-shake roofs in new construction, prescribed burns, and special training.

But departments also strive to improve their equipment.

Los Angeles firefighters are sent on every run with their "brush bags," packages containing special lightweight Nomex jackets, pants, gloves, and other protective gear designed to replace their heavyweight urban "turnouts" - firefighter lingo for uniforms.

And big-ticket equipment includes the Canadian-built Superscooper, two of which Los Angeles County is leasing from the government of Quebec for the height of the fire season - from mid-September through November. Capable of picking up 1,600 gallons of water each as they skim a lake, reservoir - even the ocean - and delivering it to a distant fire location, the two aircraft are costing the county $1.5 million.

The county maintains water-dropping helicopters of its own but is also giving a tryout to a UH-60L Firehawk, a water-dropping version of the US military's Blackhawk helicopter, and an Erickson Air-Crane, capable of holding 2,000 gallons and refilling its tank in less than a minute.

But despite all these preparations, no one who understands brush fires' potential for devastation believes the state has a perfect defense.

Wildfires this week, for instance, scorched about 30,000 acres between Palm Springs and Los Angeles. Two firefighters, one of whom was a pilot with the CDF, died on the job. These fires were contained by Wednesday evening.

"California's system is very, very good," says Mr. Geissler, "but it reflects the environmental risks here.... We could have environmental factors ... that could make our system seem wholly inadequate. We have to continue to work on it."

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