The Town Crier recently hosted a roundtable discussion with public safety officials, who would be in the management positions in the event we had another fire. To give the conversation context, we used the Cranston Fire. This served in giving the readers a look into behind the scenes thoughts and actions taken by public safety officials before, during and after the fire.
Joining in the roundtable were Cal Fire Division 6 Chief Bill Weiser, Idyllwild Fire Protection District Chief Mark LaMont, California Highway Patrol Public Information Officer Darren Meyer, County of Riverside Emergency Management Department (EMD) Senior Public Information Specialist Shane Reichardt, County of Riverside EMD Director Bruce Barton, Lt. Al Campa and Lt. Matt Burden of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, and Battalion Chief Daniel Diaz from the United States Forest Service (USFS).
“I engaged when the three separate fires in Sage started,” began Weiser when the group was asked at what point public safety officials thought they had an arsonist on their hands.
“The fourth [fire] started once we were already engaged, so I called Chief Matt Ahearn of the USFS, who was on duty at the time, and said he [arsonist] is either going to be coming up Highway 74, or he is going the way of Lamb Canyon,” continued Weiser. “At that time, the arsonist was headed down Sage Road towards Hemet and we were just guessing [on his route]. I was talking to RSO captains as well and they were on the lookout.”
Meyer added that all law enforcement agencies were in communication at that time.
How do public safety agencies respond when it is known there is an arsonist on the prowl? How are resources organized?
Diaz took the lead, “We started on the fourth fire in Sage that Chief Weiser mentioned and wrapped that fire up quickly.” Diaz continued by saying that they were in the process of heading back to get their forces rehabbed and ready to go out again.
That is when USFS realized that if the arsonist was going to head out of the Hemet area and into our area that they needed to contact their team to be on the look-out for suspicious activity. They were given the vehicle description and had fire prevention technicians out patrolling the area, which would normally be part of their regular duty. “We were on heightened alert,” said Diaz.
Weiser gave an overview of how county fire responded. “We were starting to backfill our stations that were in the fire area. We didn’t really know where it was going to go at that time, so we pushed equipment into the Sage fire station to make sure there was more equipment there because of its location.”
Diaz added, “With the drive time from Sage to the Cranston Station, where I was working out of, we were [back] in the station for about 5 minutes when we got the notification that there was a fire on the highway.”
Barton said that “we were not just looking at this incident, but where there may be other community needs, so we can be forward-meeting.”
He mentioned EMD’s organization chart. “At the heart of the Cranston Fire, we built out to about 60 people and it touched almost every department in the county. We were getting ramped up. That’s what we were doing early on. We were starting to get people in place for the alerts and warnings because we were thinking of evacuations early on.” EMD then started coordinating all of the information with the other agencies that were in the field.
“I do want to say that the information I had that morning was that the arsonist had set 17 fires up to that point,” added Weiser. “So, there was a big concern in Riverside County as to what was going on.”
Reichardt added, “As one of the duty officers at the time, I responded up here and I think we had five duty officers that were ultimately at the command post or engaged in some way on the hill.” EMD started reaching out to Animal Control in preparation of an evacuation. The department also had someone dedicated to contacting all of the camps in the area to determine if they had a population and if they needed transportation for that population. EMD was tied in with incident command, discussing early on what the evacuation triggers were going to be and then communicate that back to the emergency operations center where they were coordinating alerts and warnings.
The conversation will continue with part 2 next week.