The nearly 17,000-acre Alisal Fire shifted to a federal incident, turning on the faucet of federal funds and resources, and in just a few days, the typically barren Earl Warren Showgrounds has become a temporary base camp — complete with its own offices, kitchens, bathrooms, and sleeping arrangements.
Five days into the fire, more than 1,700 personnel have been sent to help, and Earl Warren’s “fire city” is where the firefighters come to rest and refuel in the breaks between the long shifts.
U.S. Foods provides around-the-clock catering, and camping tents pepper the front lawns, where off-duty firefighters can put up their feet, play some cards, or grab a bite to eat before heading back into the action.
With the shift to Unified Command under California Interagency Incident Management Team 1 comes plenty of resources — including on-site showers and refueling — but also an organized, experienced clerical team who set up pop-up offices inside Earl Warren’s Exhibition Hall.
Hundreds of feet of extension cords and ethernet cables snake along the concrete inside the domed hall, between desks stacked with folders, phones, walkies, and computers. Voices echo as staff help direct workers through paperwork and the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy that can get lost in the fray of emergency services.
When the firefighters come back from a long day on the scene, the first face they see is Ariana Rivera’s. She has worked with the incident management team for more than five years, coming to the “other side” after working on engines for more than two decades in Angeles and Cleveland National Forests. She does finances now, always on location at a pop-up base camp; this year alone, she has been on five different fires throughout the state.
Her cot is in the corner, less than 10 feet away from her desk, which — despite the fact that it can be set up and broken down in less than an hour — looks like a piece of home, packed with Halloween decorations, photos, plants, and inspirational sayings like “Grow through what you go through.”
Rivera said that having something that feels familiar is a great reminder for firefighters who often spend an extended time away from family. “People need that when they come in,” she said. “I like to give them that, have a big ol’ smile when they come in.”
The jack-o’-lanterns, pumpkins, and trinkets are collected from home or gifts from friends. “I love trinkets. I’m a trinket kind of person, so a lot of stuff people give me,” she said.
Born and raised in East L.A. to parents who immigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, Rivera has a knack for making people feel comfortable and at home. “I put up the decorations for them to see and remember they have families back at home and they can think about their children,” Rivera said. “And they appreciate it, they come in and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is really cool,’ and it feels good.”
Sitting front and center on her desk is a caricature drawing of Rivera, with her big smile, sitting in the cockpit of a green U.S. Forest Services fire truck — a gift from the father of a boy she had given a fire engine tour to six years ago, when she worked in Angeles National Forest.
“His son was super happy; he never forgot about it. I showed him the engine, the chainsaw, all the stuff we carry in the engine,” Rivera said. The boy was 6 at the time, but six years later, he still remembered that moment. His father is an artist and tracked Rivera down six years later and sent her the drawing. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s one of the coolest things anybody’s ever done for me.’”
It’s that ability to make a connection that Rivera brings to the incident management team now, and something she tries to carry with her always. “It’s the human aspect of it, really,” she said. And she’ll be there, for the rest of her time in Santa Barbara and wherever she needs to be next, making sure the firefighters have a piece of normalcy in the middle of everything.