Local

350 from valley head south to help combat the flames

From left, engineer Randy Lim, firefighter Ron Sohn and Capt. Mark Greenlee of the Modesto Fire Department go over the equipment inventory on Brush Engine 3 as their strike team prepares to depart from the rest area on Highway 99 south of Turlock on Monday.
From left, engineer Randy Lim, firefighter Ron Sohn and Capt. Mark Greenlee of the Modesto Fire Department go over the equipment inventory on Brush Engine 3 as their strike team prepares to depart from the rest area on Highway 99 south of Turlock on Monday. (TED BENSON / THE BEE)

More than 350 firefighters from the Northern San Joaquin Valley have been sent to battle the Southern California firestorms, and regional emergency officials say more could be sent south soon.

Troops from the National Guard posts in Modesto were among the 1,500 called up statewide by governor and sent to help.

In Stanislaus County, the three strike teams comprised 52 firefighters and 15 engines from the Modesto, Salida, Denair, Turlock Rural and Oakdale Rural departments.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection units from Calaveras and Tuolumne counties sent 251 people, along with equipment. The Cal Fire contingent included 15 engines, a helicopter and a bull- dozer.

And more than 50 people from Stanislaus National Forest crews are on the front lines in Southern California, a spokesman said.

The regional firefighters join more than 7,500 battling seven to 15 fires across seven Southern California counties, the flames whipped by relentless Santa Ana winds.

The third Stanislaus County strike team held a rendezvous at the Turlock rest stop along Highway 99 and left about 11:30 a.m. Monday. It was heading for Staging Area Prado in the high desert.

Robert Hoyer, second in command for the Stanislaus group, briefed the firefighters about some of the things they could expect.

"Pay particular attention to the weather," he told the firefighters. "It happens like clockwork. The humidity falls, the temperature rises and then the Santa Ana winds come."

Hoyer also cautioned each firefighter to be careful. "We want to get there alive and come back alive. If anything seems to be too much, back off. If someone seems to give you an assignment you can't handle, tell us."

Deployment No. 5

Capt. Mark Greenlee is part of the Modesto unit. He said this is his fifth deployment this year. "They typically last about three days," he said.

Ken Howenstine, 24, was going with Turlock Rural's engine crew. He was leaving his wife and 4-month-old son. "I'll probably call two or three times a day if I can," he said.

Some local veterans of Southern California fires cautioned that cell phone service was notoriously bad in wild-land areas.

While they were going into unfamiliar terrain, Salida firefighter Dave McCullough had confidence in the Southern California command. "Where we're going, they really have pros making the attack plans. They know what they are doing."

Engineer Dale Lundquist, 54, of the Denair Volunteer Fire Department was going to miss his 33rd wedding anniversary Thursday, but he still would be with family. His son Craig is the captain of the Denair volunteers.

Most air tankers stay home

Most of the Northern California resources going south are in the form of firefighters and engines.

A Cal Fire spokesman at the Santa Clara County base said few of the region's air tankers were being transferred south because the state "wanted to maintain fire readiness here and further north." Chief Ken McGeever said some federal air tankers had been sent south from Porterville.

Pat Kaunert, spokesman for Stanislaus National Forest, said two 20-person hand crews had been dispatched, along with 12 specialists and one bulldozer.

Kaunert added that the fire danger in the 900,000-acre forest remains moderate, and "this is no time to let our guard down."

Gary Hinshaw, Stanislaus County's director of emergency services, said the county's firefighting resources were being stretched. He said the county was prepared to send a few more engines, but "it's getting harder and harder." He said local fire chiefs were assessing how many more firefighters and equipment could be spared.

Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.

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