Firefighters scarce in Modesto during Friday night blaze

etracy@modbee.comMay 19, 2014 

Several times during the six hours firefighters spent battling a blaze Friday night that destroyed or damaged seven town houses, all but one of Modesto Regional Fire Authority’s 12 stations sat vacant.

For 90 minutes, MRFA stopped responding to medical calls altogether, said Interim Fire Chief Sean Slamon.

Every MRFA firefighter was battling the blaze on Emerald Avenue that started as a vegetation fire caused by an illegal fire pit and ended with the displacement of 17 people.

Eleven other fire agencies, contributing 22 engines, were either right alongside MRFA or covering one of its stations. At most, half of Modesto’s stations were covered during the Emerald Avenue fire.

For the past few years, MRFA has been working with the Ceres and Turlock fire departments and Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District to formulate a model that includes automatic mutual aid and boundary drops, which would dispatch the closest engines to calls regardless of jurisdiction, saving critical minutes on fires or freeing up an engine for other calls.

“In the case of a fire, minutes can mean everything,” said MRFA Battalion Chief Hugo Patino. “A fire can double in size every one to two minutes.”

The four agencies have been training together regularly. They are working to standardize firefighting tactics and safety procedures.

“Because of joint training, our firefighters were able to assimilate right into their strategy and tactics,” Turlock Fire Department Chief Tim Lohman said.

Changes are looming

The agencies hope to have a plan in place by July 1, when MRFA will dissolve and Modesto, Salida and the county fire warden’s office will again operate independently, and $2 million will be cut from Modesto Fire Department as part of the city’s 2014-15 budget.

Modesto has discussed browning out Fire Station 6 on Standiford Avenue. Its nine firefighters would be deployed to other stations to reduce overtime costs and save the city about $630,000.

“We didn’t have enough resources to handle (Friday’s) situation and we will be another engine company down,” Slamon said. “There have been several times in the past week that we have been down to two engine companies or less.”

As it stands, Slamon had to order into work an additional 30 firefighters Friday and use two reserve engines.

Slamon said dry, hot and windy conditions lately all have contributed to an increase in fires.

“Grass fires are starting much more rapidly than they normally would this time of year,” he said. “We are seeing fire behavior we wouldn’t normally see until August.”

Friday’s fire, which encompassed about 20 acres in all, required assistance beyond Stanislaus County.

Covering several of MRFA’s stations Friday, Escalon Fire Protection District and Ripon Consolidated Fire District were dispatched to two potential house fire calls and Keyes Fire District and Hughson Fire Protection District responded to another vegetation fire in west Modesto.

No other homes were damaged in those calls, but response times were extended because the closest stations to those fires were vacant, Slamon said.

“Natural borders seem to be a wall, like rivers and county lines, but over the last several years, both Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties have worked to take that wall down,” said Ripon Fire Chief Dennis Bitters.

Calling for mutual aid

He said they are working with dispatchers to call for the closest mutual aid, regardless of the county. “Engine 12 (in Salida) comes in to cover for us a lot,” Bitters said. “Sometimes they will put an engine right in the middle and just have them wait for a call.”

MRFA on Friday also asked for assistance from the Ceres Fire Department, but it had its own vegetation fire and required assistance from Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District, which also sent engines to help battle the Emerald Avenue fire.

As other agencies sent resources to Modesto, their staffs were stretched thin. Ripon used several reserve firefighters while one of its engines was in Modesto, and Stanislaus Consolidated had to order in two of its firefighters, but two or three of its five stations were vacant during that time.

Fortunately, no other major fires occurred within the jurisdictions that provided mutual aid on the Emerald Avenue fire.

Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at etracy@modbee.com or (209) 578-2366. Follow her on Twitter @ModestoBeeCrime.

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