On Sunday afternoon, with things calm within the Scherpa Fire perimeter and little to report, I stopped by the Command Center at Dos Pueblos High School to speak with Rocky Oplinger, the newly appointed Incident Commander (IC) for the Scherpa Fire. Oplinger is the leader of National Incident Team 4, one of sixteen teams called in to manage major incidents of national significance. He was also one of several ICs for the Zaca Fire in 2007 and has extensive fire experience throughout Southern California.
With the potential for the fire to continue its eastward movement and head into areas with significant values at risk, the switch to the “Type 1” team occurred yesterday afternoon, fortunately on a day when the predicted sundowner winds did not impact operations on the critical northeastern part of the fire perimeter.
“A Type 1 team brings with it a strength of overall experience and a diversity that provides a much more robust team,” Oplinger explained. “There are 56 people on the team with members representing every firefighting agency, with multiple divisions, each as large as the Type 2 team here before us.”
Saturday turned out to be a good day for the transition to occur. “We were very fortunate to be the only incident going on in SoCal, so we were able to get the number of resources we wanted,” said Oplinger. “We’ve also been very lucky with the weather.”
Holding the northeast corner of the fire perimeter is Oplinger’s biggest concern today. “That’s our highest priority,” he said, “with a focus on using the air resources to support the ground crews so, if we get a true sundowner, the wind will push the fire back into what’s already burned and allow us time to hold that corner.”
“We were very fortunate not to have had the predicted sundowners surface last night,” he added. “When the wind picked up on the west, it was well secured to the point that the crews could handle a wind event of that magnitude. On the east end, we were able to protect that area because it was a bit more sheltered from the wind. While it is difficult terrain, we’ve been able to contain the fire to its current footprint.”
Oplinger won’t make a prediction of when containment might occur, but he did say that by later tonight — when the new perimeter data comes in — we’ll see a much higher level of containment. “Fires have different dynamics,” he said, “and while our ultimate goal is to reach 100-percent containment, what gets us there is being very methodical about maintaining the strategy and tactics that have been deployed — including having contingencies for worst-case scenarios if things do change — and often they do. With the fuel conditions that exist out there and the wind component, there is continued potential for the fire to spread.”
Jim Weatherby, spokesperson for Oplinger’s team, noted that the percentage of ignition for the fire today, given the heat and lower humidity, is 100 percent. This means that any time an ember spots out in front of the fire perimeter, it will almost certainly ignite.
“We’ll be as aggressive as we can tonight in making sure we can hold that corner,” Oplinger said. “Our highest priority is that we work in a safe manner no matter what the weather does.