My First Hand Account of a California Wildfire: A Law Enforcement Officer's Perspective

My First Hand Account of a California Wildfire: A Law Enforcement Officer's Perspective

California is engulfed in wildfires right now. The Mendocino Complex Fire is now the largest fire in California history, eclipsing the previous record of 281,000 acre Thomas Fire of 2017. Having responded to a number of wildfires myself, these news stories resurrect both great memories where we were able to help some folks in need and some horrible memories where we had to help people who were not as lucky.

I thought it would be a good time to reflect on one of those stories in particular, the 2014 San Marcos fires in San Diego County to which I responded with my partner Bob. Bob and I were on duty a very long time for this callout. In fact, I don't even remember when we left we were so tired.

In looking back at this tragic event, I want to focus on ways we can contribute positively to the current fire fighting efforts. If you are sensing a certain amount of resignation in my words, you would be correct and the reason for this is because I feel that extraordinary wildfires in California are likely "the new normal."

If this is the case, then we need to look at ways to make the resources we have be as effective as possible while keeping our brave firefighters as safe as possible. Firefighters are our most valuable resource in this battle.

The May 2014 San Diego Wildfires caused too many families to lose everything as their homes fell victim to a cluster of vicious wildfires that burned out of control for nearly a week. Despite the significant improvements in preparations for fire season by the County of San Diego, City of San Diego, CalFire and numerous other agencies, the combination of record-breaking temperatures and prolonged drought conditions proved to be as dangerous as ever.

We were called into action quickly to help support mandatory evacuations and counter-looting patrols. These fires were like so many large-scale disasters: the worst circumstances bring out the best and the worst in humanity. All the agencies came out to support the mission.

To my knowledge, there was almost none of the usual bickering and jockeying that normally accompanies inter-agency operations. We also encountered more than our fare share of citizens who refused to cooperate with mandatory evacuation orders and put lives at risk as a result.

In addition to my usual kit, I brought a pair of Qore Performance® Hydration Band FRs (Fire Resistant) along for this assignment. It was a life-saver given the proximity of the fire to our positions, ambient temperatures, fire suits and duty gear (I chose to wear my body armor which was a huge mistake for 98% of the callout, more on that later).

In retrospect, I really wish I had IcePlates® at the time. We didn't invent IcePlate® until 2016, so this was impossible. However, as I reflect on these events now, with the wildfires raging all over the state of California, I can't help but think how much we can help the firefighters on the front lines and the law enforcement officers who are supporting them. Improved up time, greater logistical efficiency, reduced fatigue, greater endurance and injury risk reduction are but some of the ways our IceVest HiVis Safety Vest could be helping the fire effort.

Our friends at SOARescue have had this vision since the first time they laid eyes on the IcePlate® in December 2016. They were the first people to see IcePlate® as the solution for Firefighter Rehab. We'll dive more into IcePlate® as a rehab tool in a later part of this series. For now, here is the rest of the reflection on the 2014 San Marcos Fire in California told through the lens of my iPhone. 

Wildfire season has turned into a year-round affair in California
I took two screen shots of the weather during the san diego fires. I don’t remember which one was day one vs day two, but the searing temperatures are obvious nonetheless.
California's increasingly hot temperatures make it prime territory for wildfires
This was the temperature near our main base where we prepped gear to respond to the 2014 San Diego Wildfires. An ambient temp of 106f is hot by itself, then add body armor, a nomex fire suit ppe, running patrol car engines and the heat of the actual fires…brutal.
Air attack is a mission-critical tool for fighting wildfires, especially in California. Pictured: Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane in firefighting form
The Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane/Aircrane is not something you see everyday or even at every wildfire. This thing was one impressive fire fighting beast! sorry for the low-res shot, my iPhone was on max zoom and I couldn’t exactly carry a DSLR with me.
CH-53 helicopters from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton were critical to our response to these San Diego wildfires
A cool shot of the impressive CH-53s from the Marine Corps coming in over the rooftops of local businesses. If it were not for the wildfires, this would have been another beautiful San Diego sunset.
Military helicopters have been a huge help in battling California wildfires
USMC CH-53s come in to refill their water buckets after another good drop. They filled their buckets right next to our command post, but we were never sure what they were using for a water source. Our best guess was the pool at mission hills high? If you know where, please let us know in the comments!
Marine Corps CH-53s battle the California wildfires
USMC CH-53s flying in formation while battling the 2014 San Diego wildfires near San Marcos.
Military helicopters battling the wildfires in California
Formation flying not only looks cool, but is common in military aviation. As civilian law enforcement, this is not something we are used to seeing. As one of my NSW friends used to tell me: “Justin, remember your ABC's: always be cool.”
A picture of our command post for this California wildfire
A view of the San Marcos fires from our motor pool staging area. The fires were closer than I realized at the time which was actually great for our response time. Big hat tip to all San Diego County LEOs for this mission.
Fire gear
This is the trunk of my POV while gearing up to respond to the wildfires: Nomex fire suit, Point Blank body armor, Motorola XTS-5000 radio with speaker mic, 5.11 light for life charger and 5.11 patrol ready bag.

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