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A Tour of Fire Fight Headquarters

Small City Set Up at Earl Warren for Those Battling Jesusita


Saturday, May 9, 2009

For the last few days, Earl Warren Showgrounds has become headquarters for the fight against the Jesusita Fire, which thus far has charred nearly 9,000 acres in the hills above Santa Barbara.

Slowly but surely, as the fire has grown, so have the operations at Earl Warren, culminating Saturday morning with a parking lot so packed that even fire engines and firefighters couldn't find a spot. Filling the spaces are all sorts of trucks, vans, tents, semis, and, of course, fire engines. But what's going on inside the buildings, tents, and trailers is really the story to be told.

In the last few days, Earl Warren has become a small city for the roughly 4,000 personnel associated with fighting the blaze. "Everything you could possibly think of, they have," Santa Barbara City Fire Capt. Steve Berman said.

It's true, as shown by Berman during a tour of the showgrounds Saturday afternoon.

Incident Command is centered at Warren Hall, where paper, maps, and people exist in abundance. Check-ins for firefighters, people reading the area papers, and others strategizing and reviewing logistics keep the large space abuzz, with people going from room to room and desk to desk in the facility.

A peek inside a trailer near the entrance to Warren Hall reveals a full-service copy center that would put a Kinko's to task. Inside, two women are responsible for all the maps, briefings, reports, and everything else that planning this large-scale fire fight takes. For this morning's briefing, the two made 1,200 copies of a 30-page report to ensure that everyone had the game plan in hand. And they had to print more.

More than 1,000 maps with every bit of detail and information you can think of are printed in the air-conditioned unit, which also has satellite television. This includes a 5x7-foot map in the main hall used for briefings.

Go around the side and you'll run into a semi-truck equipped to dole out communications equipment. The squad there passes out radios and batteries to teams, and can also fix any that have been damaged. They also clone radios with a simple plug-in wire to make sure everyone is working on the right frequency, without having to take the time to plug in the numbers manually.

Behind that, media satellite trucks are still in abundance. The media, everyone from local newspapers and television stations, to CNN and Fox News, have posted up for daily press conference updates at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Taking up any available shaded green space throughout the showgrounds are tents. It's hot and loud during the day, but the firefighters who work at night have to do their best to get some Zs while they have the chance. In emergencies, firefighters can work up to 14-day stretches before getting a two-day break. Sometimes that can get extended to 21 days.

For lunch, a contracted group in Orange County sends up a semi-truck of brown bag lunches, filled with 4,000 calories of food to make sure the hardest workers on the front line are getting fed. In one sack, a ham sandwich, bags of chips, two peanut butter sandwiches, and a bag of M&Ms were waiting to be eaten.

But it's prepared food for breakfast and dinner. Late in the afternoon, dozens of prison inmates wearing orange jumpsuits were busy preparing dinner for the hundreds of firefighters. "It's gotta be decent," Berman said. Breakfast, served from 5 to 11 a.m., certainly sounded decent on Saturday, with Spanish-style eggs, bacon, refried beans, and tortillas. Coffee, hot water, cold drinks, and snacks are also available.

MarBorg brings in porta-potties for firefighters to use as bathrooms, while semi-truck trailers turn into sinks and counters, complete with mirrors. Right next door is another trailer with showers set up for both men and women that are cleaned in the night hours when they aren't being used. Some of the hot shot crews up in the mountains don't get to take advantage of all the facilities, and instead get "rats, bats, water, and fuel" dropped to them from helicopters. (In non-firefighter speak, "rats" and "bats" are rations and batteries.) Most all of the services are provided by contracted companies approved by the state.

But even with all that going on, Earl Warren still isn't big enough. Food and sleeping arrangements are set at Live Oak Camp, while Elings Park has also become a staging area for firefighters.

All-in-all, daily operations cost between $500,000 and $1 million. It's a large operation, but a small price to pay in comparison to the work the firefighters have done.

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