YOU ARE HERE: IVPress HomeCollections

Viejas: Valley strike teams respond

January 06, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

LAKESIDE — After a 12-hour shift through the night protecting homes from the Viejas fire, a weary group of Imperial Valley firefighters returns to base camp here.

Filing out of their engines, the firefighters make their way into El Monte County Park, miles from where the blaze has scorched more than 10,000 acres and destroyed six homes.

The park since Wednesday has been the firefighters' refuge, where they can eat, shower, sleep and meet firefighters from throughout the state as they wait to return to the fire line.

On Friday, firefighters from the two Imperial Valley strike teams called the gathering in the Lakeside park a firefighters' reunion.

"It's a grand reunion of the fire service," said Brawley fire Capt. Jesse Zendejas, who added, "We get to see the state mutual aid system in place. We get to see it work."


Fire engines were lined up like a fire service parade in the park Friday. Some 2,000 firefighters joined in battling the blaze, which has left the mountains south of Interstate 8 devastated.

What once were mountains covered with lush greenery have become charred, smoking; in certain areas off the interstate all one can see is scorched land.

From the Imperial Valley, crews from El Centro, Brawley, Calexico, Calipatria, Holtville, Calipatria State Prison and the county Fire Department responded to the fire.

In addition, firefighters from Naval Air Facility El Centro were called to serve with a San Diego strike unit.

The first Valley strike team of 22 firefighters arrived about 3 p.m. Wednesday and the second team of about 10 arrived that night.

El Centro fire Capt. Ken Herbert said the local team's job was to provide structure protection in areas where the fire had not yet reached.

"They move us to areas where they believe it will be later," he said. "They make projections where this thing will be.

"You can't chase the fire," he said, adding the goal is to get ahead of the blaze.

On Friday the Imperial Valley firefighters who arrived first were waiting in the base camp. They had worked 12 hours the day before and had been off during the night.

The firefighters were waiting for word on whether they would be assigned that day or if they would be demobilized and sent home. They said they would not mind if they were to stay.

"That's what we are here for," said Calexico fire Capt. Rudy Valdez. "We are here to help fight the fire, to protect the people and the structures."

As it turned out, the local firefighters were demobilized along with hundreds of firefighters from other departments late Friday. All Imperial Valley firefighters had returned home later Friday.

As winds died down and temperatures dropped, it became easier to battle the blaze, which by Saturday was 60 percent contained.

Late in the morning Friday, the group of Imperial Valley firefighters dispatched with the second strike team arrived at the base camp after working through the night.

Though exhausted, they said it felt good to be part of such a large effort.

Holtville Fire Chief Charles Cariveau said his team had been assigned to Lawson Road, providing structure protection. He said in all his team worked some 16 hours.

Part of the work included meeting with residents to educate them about the progress of the fire and the efforts to stop the blaze.

He added a lot of the work involved patrolling the area looking for hot spots.

"We are happy to provide this service because we get this service in return," Cariveau said, adding if Imperial Valley ever had a need for help with a blaze, departments from around the state would respond.

He added one important point to note about the blaze is it is a "reimbursable fire." In others words, local departments will receive federal dollars for the costs associated with fighting the blaze.

Those fighting the fire said there were long stretches filled with waiting, but there were periods where there was much work to prevent the spread of the blaze.

They said one thing they will remember about joining the effort to stop the blaze was the appreciation showed by area residents.

"The residents were standing out waving at us," Zendejas said. "They were grateful that we were out there. It gives us a lot of satisfaction. Families were standing out there; their kids, everyone."

Joel Knieper, a volunteer with the Calipatria State Prison Fire Department, said, "You see the public's appreciation and it gives you a good feeling. You see you are doing something good."

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

Imperial Valley Press Online Articles