On Sunday evening, Santa Clara County Fire Chief Ken Waldvogel received an urgent request: Please send personnel to help combat the wildfires raging in Southern California.
The California Disaster and Civil Defense Master Mutual Aid Agreement -- signed by all 58 counties and nearly all city governments -- ensures that municipalities deploy manpower and resources in a crisis. Under the plan, the governor declares a disaster area, which prompts the regional coordinator to notify the county coordinator.
Santa Clara County is part of mutual-aid Region II, which ranges from Lake County to Monterey County.
The Palo Alto Fire Department sent out one engine at 1 p.m. Monday, carrying a captain, an operator and two firefighters.
"It's not mandatory to send out a team, but any time we can, we do," said Dan Lindsey, deputy chief of operations for the Palo Alto Fire Department.
The Palo Alto firefighters reported arriving safely Monday night, Lindsey said.
They first were deployed to the Magic fire north of Malibu, according to Ron Bonfiglio, Palo Alto battalion chief. Wednesday they were sent to the fire near Lake Arrowhead, and as of Thursday, they had been reassigned to the Witch fire in San Diego County, the largest acreage fire.
The commitment for mutual aid is generally seven days per team or engine crew. But for the magnitude of the current fires, the amount of time the local firefighters will be needed is an unknown, Waldvogel said.
"With circumstances as they are, I don't know if there's a maximum time," he said. "Once they're in the system, they're a really valuable resource."
Lindsey anticipates a minimum stay of seven days for the Palo Alto crew, after which time they will replace them with fresh Palo Alto strike teams.
As of Thursday morning, there were no plans for any teams to be released and returned, but Waldvogel said the Santa Clara County Fire Department would start asking about long-term plans that day.
If current crews are not released by Saturday morning, Waldvogel will consider replacing them with fresh firefighters. But Waldvogel called it a "logistical nightmare" because it involves meeting up at a base camp not in the fire line, switching out equipment and keeping careful track of resources for later reimbursement.
Expenses incurred, including the costs of sending out units and overtime pay, are usually reimbursed by the requesting agency, which in this case is the USDA Forest Service.
So far, no injuries or equipment failure have been reported for any of the Santa Clara County fire departments.
They were assisting with the Witch fire, the Grass Valley fire and the Buckweed fire. A number of teams have been redeployed from Los Angeles County to San Diego County, where the most severe fires are still raging, Waldvogel said.
Ken Kehmna, operations chief for the Santa Clara County Fire Department, observed that the Southern California wildfires are "very similar to the 'Fire Siege' of 2003" in terms of number of fires, deployment of engines and personnel and potential acreage damage.
"It's the closest correlation you can draw," he said.
The October 2003 Fire Siege burned 750,043 acres; 3,710 homes were lost; and 24 people were killed, including one firefighter, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Web site.
The Web site also noted Thursday that 10 wildfires were still burning from northern Los Angeles County to the Mexican border. The fires have burned about 500,000 acres and destroyed almost 1,500 homes. About 7,000 firefighters are battling the blazes. Only one death has been confirmed as being caused by the fires.
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