In anticipation of a busy fire season, and with the LNU Lightning Complex fires still fresh in residents’ minds, the Vacaville Fire Department is working particularly hard to ensure its firefighters are well-trained to extinguish woodland fires.
On Wednesday, firefighters received the ultimate training as they put out an approximately 15-acre blaze on Callen Hill during an annual exercise. The purpose was to mitigate potential fire impacts by burning brush and giving firefighters the kind of scenario they might have to deal with during fire season.
“This training is helping us prepare getting our firefighters out here and getting back into the mindset,” firefighter and paramedic Brian Jewell said. “Every time we can put fire on the ground and watch it react and behave with it in a controlled environment, it makes us better and stronger.”
Each year, the department conducts a controlled training burn exercise on Callen Hill, located between Callen Street and Allison Drive and stretching up to near Markham Avenue. The particular parcel that was burned and extinguished Wednesday was off Brown Street, not far from Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses and across the street from Markham Elementary School.
Jewell said the hill was chosen for the exercise each yea, due to it being in the middle of town and close to several homes, businesses and even a school. He also said it was a space that had a high potential for a devastating fire, should one be ignited by accident.
“If we can come out here on a day that’s favorable for us to burn and get rid of all this fuel in a controlled environment, it’s a lot better than, say, in the middle of the night when the wind’s blowing and the fire starts accidentally and we have to worry about evacuating the neighborhood.”
Approximately 25 firefighters were on hand to help with the exercise, with most coming from the Vacaville Fire Department and the rest coming from other agencies such as the Dixon Fire Department, Cal Fire and the California Medical Facility Fire Department.
Jewell said it was important to involve other agencies so they could be prepared for mutual aid responses.
“(It) turns a group of teams into a more cohesive unit,” he said. “We’ll run into these units out in the state somewhere or out in the county, so just putting names to faces and training together, it all puts us on the same page for what we’re trying to do and what we’re going to do.”
Battalion Chief Ryan Purnell delivered the briefing for the first training exercise of the day, which consisted of providing instructions for the firefighters and delivering a weather forecast. The day was projected to have a 29 percent relative humidity with winds blowing at 1 to 2 mph at the moment, making for favorable conditions.
“Everything’s pretty dry, and we’ll get right to it,” he said. “We’re gonna be providing a realistic training environment for burn operations.”
The training consisted of igniters with drip torches walking along the hill and laying strips of diesel and gasoline to start the fires, and holders walking along with hand tools and fire pumps to “keep the fire in check,” Jewell said.
The blaze scorched the hillside, and the winds picked up enough to create some miniature “smoke tornadoes,” but crews remained vigilant and were able to extinguish the entire fire.
Fire Chief Kris Concepcion said crews are trained on the latest woodland firefighting techniques.
“The fire behavior doesn’t change all that much, but the science of fighting fire and fighting wildland fires does change over time,” he said. “It’s important that our crews know the latest techniques.”
Concepcion acknowledged that people in neighboring communities may see it as an inconvenience, especially as they experience drift smoke from the exercise, but he assured it was a necessary training tool for both the firefighters and the community.
“We would rather have this in controlled conditions than an uncontrolled fire on Callen Hill that can threaten homes,” he said.
What this year’s fire season could look like in Vacaville remains to be seen. Last August, the LNU Fires were a wakeup call for the city, as several nearby fires merged into a complex, destroying hundreds of structures and killing two people in rural Vacaville.
With a trend of California’s fire season starting earlier than it has in the past, Concepcion said it was especially important for firefighters to be prepared to combat wildfires.
“It seems like our wildland season is expanding,” he said. “It used to be a few months a year, now it almost seems like it’s year-round. The most important thing, in order to mitigate fire, is that our firefighters are prepared, and this will help our firefighters become more prepared.”