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Area firefighters gather to train, brace for fire season

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Posted: Thursday, June 2, 2005 10:00 pm

"Teamwork, guys!" volunteer Clements Firefighter Kurt Rhoades called to several firefighters Thursday as they unrolled a hose and began attacking a brush fire off Clements Road.

Despite a setback -- when the crew left a couple of so-called hot spots behind, which flared up and damaged the hose when the wind suddenly shifted -- they soon conquered the blaze.

And, because it was just a training drill, they also learned something.

As many as 111 county, state and federal firefighters gathered Thursday for the daylong training session, said Rhoades, who coordinated the event. At least as many crew members are scheduled to return to the area today.

The training came at the beginning of what could be a busy fire season. The rainy winter and heavy snowpack help provide water, but they also help weeds grow, said Capt. Ken Harris of the Woodbridge Fire District.

"This is just the first week in June, and look how tall the grass is," he said Thursday as he stepped through knee-high weeds. Some were even taller.

In addition to the fire hose training -- called "progressive hose lays" -- firefighters practiced battling wildland fires while protecting buildings. A five-person California Department of Fire helicopter crew was also on hand to teach crews how to work safely while a chopper operates nearby.

The main things to remember, said Bill Chu, an Orinda-based ranger with East Bay Municipal Utility District, is to watch for the helicopter and keep eye contact with the pilot or operator.

While the public sometimes thinks fire helicopters save the day, they can't do it alone, according to Capt. Dean Chambers, who has been fighting fires for nearly 30 years and now flies the CDF chopper.

At one point Thursday, the helicopter began refueling in preparation to leave for a real fire, but it was then canceled. Instead, the crew continued training and also helped intentionally set fire to sections of an open field so others could then learn the best way to douse the flames.

Firefighters from a multitude of departments and districts -- including Woodbridge, Jenny Lind, the U.S. Forest Service, Murphys, Ebbett Pass, San Andreas and Clements -- worked together.

Volunteer firefighter Mark Fedorchak gives Cameron Heberle, left, and Ted Forkum some tips to use when rolling up the hose and putting it away. (Angelina Gervasi/News-Sentinel)

When fighting a large fire, Harris said, crews can't just go about their normal routine and answer to their own bosses. Department lines no longer matter, and it comes down to gaining control of the blaze as fast as possible.

Some of the firefighters at Thursday's training are fairly new to the profession and haven't gotten a lot of experience yet, Harris said.

With the coming fire season, the training both taught and refreshed fire safety skills.

In San Joaquin County, crews usually face structure or grass fires. By setting controlled fires on a large open lot Thursday, the firefighters were able to practice the same techniques numerous times.

Kameron McGowan, a firefighter for the California Department of Forestry, uses a flame torch to light the dry grass on fire so other firefighters can work on their progressive hose-laying drill. (Angelina Gervasi/News-Sentinel)

The rural area is often the scene of numerous grass fires during the summer, because the rolling hills are not watered.

Near Clements Road, flames crackled and smoke rose in the air as a crew stretched hose over the blackening earth, aiming the water as they went. When they reached the end of the hose, they quickly clamped it off, removed the nozzle, attached another hose and kept going.

The process works well when firefighters face blazes where trucks can't easily drive, Harris said. He recalled times when he went through 2,000 feet of hose in that manner.

Then, when the fire is put out, the clean-up begins. The hoses have to be checked, cleaned and put away. And that, too, requires teamwork as the firefighters each have a role.

"It all boils down to one thing: teamwork," said Chambers, of the CDF.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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