Feeling abandoned by state and federal government during an unprecedented conflagration of fires, arson units in two mountain towns of Santa Cruz were forced to exploit an alternative: aid unofficial an elite network of the best emergency response units in the country – who quickly provided the necessary equipment and support.
Over the weekend, teams from Menlo Park delivered spare water supplies, firefighting platforms, cots, sleeping bags, radios and equipment. of communication, food and water to the ailing firefighting units in Boulder Creek and Ben Lomond. There, veteran and decorated first responders established makeshift command and operations centers to fight the CZU Lightning Complex fire raging in the mountains above Silicon Valley.
“These guys needed help. They are my people. So we took action, ”said Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman. “It’s just what we do. No question asked.
Monday, the fire of the CZU had burned 78,000 acres, 276 houses destroyed and was only 13% contained. Mother Nature did good to the firefighters on Sunday evening, bringing a cooler temperatures and even some rains to dampen the flames, and Cal Fire crews were able to drop water on Monday.
But if lightning or strong southerly winds returned, it could threaten communities on the way to the blaze, including Felton, Santa Cruz and the UC Santa Cruz evacuated campus.
The body of a 70-year-old man was found in the fire zone over the weekend, according to Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Chris Clark.
Clark said the man’s body was found “some distance” from what appeared to be his vehicle at the end of Last Chance Road – deep in the mountains northwest of the community of Davenport in County of Santa Cruz.
Schapelhouman District is home to and sponsors an elite FEMA urban search and rescue unit. It’s called California Task Force 3, and it’s one of 28 such forces in the United States.
The team of about 200 people have responded to some of the country’s most notorious and deadliest disasters, including the 2018 camp fire, the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion, and the notorious hurricanes. such as Katrina, Irma and Harvey.
During Katrina, the team was dispatched to find survivors and “recover bodies,” said Rudy Torres, the task force’s chief mechanic. He described how the team toured the flooded city of New Orleans in 2005, digging holes in the attics of submerged homes, poking their noses in to smell the rotting corpses.
So when Schapelhouman called Carl Kustin – a Boulder Creek resident, retired volunteer firefighter and active member of the FEMA CA-TF3 incident support team last week – Kustin told him the situation was serious. It was then that Schapelhouman came into action.
“You have to understand, we do this kind of work because we care about people and their communities. But this time it’s different. This time it’s our home.
Carl Kustin, logistics veteran and retired volunteer firefighter in Boulder Creek
With Torres’ help, the team prepared a fire engine and water supply tank to be used for training purposes, and prepared road equipment for under-supplied fire crews in the mountains. .
On Friday evening, Schapelhouman – who became quadriplegic after falling from a ladder in 2013 – traveled to the mountains to monitor the situation.
He saw men sleeping on the floor of the fire station. He saw that they were running out of food and supplies. He felt their exhaustion, desperation and fear as they tried to fight the fires, aware that support and reinforcements were unlikely to arrive.
“I said to Kustin, what do you need?” ” he said.
Schapelhouman returned home early Saturday morning and mobilized his team and network. He obtained radios, communications equipment, batteries and even fire fighting foam, which he sent to the mountains that afternoon with a unit providing assistance.
He then instructed his team to fill a FEMA supply truck with water and Gatorade paddles, cots and sleeping bags, which Torres and a small team drove late on Saturday night.
According to Stacie Brownlee, fire chief for Ben Lomond, Cal Fire began providing limited support after media reported the agency’s inability to help as it faced a multitude of fires in California.
Schapelhouman also secured several infrared and thermal drones for volunteer firefighters to use for fire reconnaissance. Although Cal Fire and the FAA initially refused to approve the flights – citing concerns about the safety of the planes – it was given the green light on Monday morning.
In the afternoon, members of the Task Force 3 drone team were in Scott’s Valley preparing to deploy the fleet on Wednesday morning.
“We don’t take no for an answer,” he said. “It’s not in our blood.”
Meanwhile, Kustin, who lives in Boulder Creek and is a retired member of a volunteer firefighting force but still an active member of the Schapelhouman Incident Command Unit, began preparing the fire hall and its surroundings to serve as an emergency operations center.
In Boulder Creek, volunteer firefighters had been fighting the blazes almost non-stop for the past five days and were exhausted. They would take naps, when they could, on the concrete floor of the fire station – amid rolling engines, emergency calls and shift changes from their teammates.
As a result, the fire station – engine room, kitchen and dining room – looked in disguise, with water bottles, sachets of electrolyte, and snacks haphazardly placed on the kitchen counters. Radios, firefighting equipment and clothing were strewn around the engine room in messy piles – where crew members had dropped them as they answered calls to save their town.
“I started going crazy,” said Kustin, a decorated FEMA command chief, sympathizing with the firefighters and their fire chief.
A logistics veteran, Kustin has worked with teams to set up dozens of emergency operations centers during his career – from Oklahoma City to the World Trade Center disaster on September 11, to the Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico.
Courtesy of Boulder Creek Fire Chief Mark Bingham, Kustin got to work. He established a sleeper area in the adjoining games room, where teams could sleep for a few hours without being disturbed by the ever-changing teams and the actions taking place in the fire hall.
And he organized the kitchen and adjoining dining room, moving sleeping bags and gear scattered around, and turned the fire hall into a de facto operations center – where communications were in one area, snacks readily available to incoming and outgoing crews, and equipment accessible, visible and easy to grab.
“I know how to do this. Everything has to be in its place, accessible and where you need it when you need it, ”he said.
As the night sky periodically glowed orange and red as the trees and nearby houses were consumed by the flames, he bustled about the parking lot behind the barracks, leading the young men and women from the firefighting team – including Kustin’s own son Garrett, 23 – as they unload Torres’ supply truck.
He walked into the rec room, to show a visitor how quiet the space was compared to the activity outside, then paused to talk about the moment and the inspiration he had. shot young firefighters, such as Bingham, who were battling these fires with everything they had. .
“You have to understand that we do this kind of work because we care about people and their communities,” he said. “But this time it’s different. This time it’s our home.