The conflagration in downtown Boonville last Thursday afternoon drew crowds of neighbors, valley locals, and firefighters. If you were among the first two groups, you might have some questions about what the third group was doing. Here are some of the things you saw.
The fire was paged out on the local 911 network at 12:32 pm. It was rare for several reasons. First, we don’t get that many structure fires in our valley; most of our fires are wildland blazes that are quickly put out. The few structure fires we get tend to be chimney fires early in the rainy season, or small stuff such as oven liners catching fire. These also are put out quickly.
But even more rare was that the fire was paged out as “fully involved.” This means something very specific to firefighters. Usually a building on fire is burning (“involved”) in some relatively small percentage of its physical dimensions. So the first-arriving firefighters roll up, assess the percentage of involvement, report that to all the other responders, and then decide how to attack the fire. The aim is to confine and snuff the flames at their origin point, thereby saving as much of the structure as possible.
A fully involved structure is different. The building is burning to such a degree that the walls and roof are already potential unstable, and at least some of the interior is an inferno. When there is no safe side or angle to get inside and hit the source of the fire, incident commanders (aka “IC”) change their mindset. Instead of attacking the fire, they organize a strong defense. The point is to contain the fire to the one structure, so it doesn’t spread to any others. If conditions change, IC may call for a targeted interior attack, but the main goal is to reduce risk for the town as a whole.
Anderson Valley Fire Department and Calfire responded to the page-out within minutes. Their engines carry water, hoses and powerful pumps to charge the hoses with the water. We were fortunate that Calfire could provide two fully staffed engines rather than the usual one that winters over with us. IC quickly radioed for support from other agencies. Those agencies ultimately included Comptche Fire Department, Elk Fire Department, Hopland Fire Department, South Coast Volunteer Fire Department, and Ukiah Valley Fire Authority.
Some of these agencies committed their water tenders – water tanks on wheels – which became central to fire operations when the fire hydrant at the fairgrounds began to run low a couple hours into the fire. They also committed firefighters, which is why at any given time you might have seen as many as 20 people or more working to put water on the fire.
Speaking of operations, that’s another technical term in the fire service. It means the actual firefighting. IC was also controlling two other functions: logistics and medical. Logistics is critical when you have seven agencies working together on the same “scene.” Engines and tenders are arriving, getting staged near the scene to wait for orders, getting those orders (which means they become part of operations), getting relieved, and exiting the scene. All those vehicles come with people, who more or less go with and do whatever their vehicle is assigned to. There are lots of other logistics, too, such as where the water is coming from. When the fairgrounds hydrant began to slow, Penny Royal Farm invited the water tenders to fill up from its reservoir.
The medical group monitors the condition of firefighters as they rotate out for a breather or to replace their depleted oxygen bottles with full ones. Most seasoned firefighters with structure experience know that the combination of adrenalin and exertion while wearing full-body fire-proof clothing ramps up their hearts and sucks water out of their bodies. They are trained to monitor their own condition and rotate out of operations for “rehab” – a chance to sit down in a warm dry ambulance to rehydrate, get their vital signs checked, and get ready to get back to work. Less experienced firefighters sometimes need to be pulled off operations for a bit, because exhaustion or oxygen deprivation doesn’t just hurt their performance – it can cause dangerous miscalculations that increase the risks for them and those alongside them.
So operations, logistics, and medical were all doing their thing. It might have looked like most of the responders were self-managing, but that’s only because they weren’t. There’s a saying in the emergency response world, “This is what we train for.” When we’re on a big scene, it means what it sounds like: “Wow, hundreds of hours of training and we finally get to use it!” But it also means something deeper, and even more important: We train all the time so that when an emergency comes, we do what we are trained to do. We don’t make stuff up. We don’t freelance. We stay within our training, and within ourselves.
So even with seven different firefighting agencies on the same scene, everyone has the same protocols for what to do and how to do it. We use the same chain of command and vocabulary. That’s why you saw constant communication between firefighting teams, and why you almost never saw anyone do anything on their own. (If someone was doing something that required only one person, such as swinging an axe, others were watching them like hawks.) You also might have noticed people using their radios frequently. That’s because we were using multiple radio channels, each one assigned to different teams and different purposes. We can monitor multiple channels, but we communicate out only on our assigned channel – another way to keep chaos down and execution up.
You also saw many members of Anderson Valley Fire Department who were not fighting fire – but making sure their fellow crew members could. As soon as they could get to scene, even if it was hours after the fire started, ambulance drivers, EMTs and friends of the department came and were given roles. Keeping dozens of firefighters supplied with oxygen, food and water was a non-stop effort until long after dark. When IC set a goal, early in the 5:00 hour, to open one lane of 128 at 6:00 pm, that sent another support team off to communicate with CHP, place cones, and establish traffic control pretty much on the stroke of six.
Here are some questions I heard during my seven hours on scene:
Q: How did the fire in the apartments get so big so fast?
A: When firefighters began their initial attack on the burning apartment, they observed a propane tank that was venting (releasing gas). This would have accelerated the growth of the fire and helps explain why the rest of the structure ignited so quickly.
Q: How did it spread into Lizzby’s and Pic & Pay?
A: Via a common attic that allowed free travel of heat and flame from the apartments. Modern structures with multiple apartments or businesses are required to have fire walls between each one, to contain the spread of fire. This older structure had none. This explains why the rest of it caught fire after the apartments, and also why the fire was hard to extinguish. When fire burns vertically, it doesn’t spread that fast and it’s possible to focus a lot of water on it. When a fire is moving horizontally, it’s hard to put enough water on it to contain it, much less put it out.
Q: Why didn’t firefighters go up on the roof of Lizzby’s, like they do on television? They could have cut a hole in the roof and poured water down on the fire, right?
A: A firefighter did go up on that roof, early on. He came right back down after about 30 seconds. Firefighters can tell by walking on a roof if the attic below it is burning. It feels hot and a bit soft underfoot. The roof over the restaurant and Pic & Pay was thin-gauge metal, which was not likely to give firefighters much support or protection. Once someone actually went up on the roof, it was clear that the fire could not be fought from there. The roof could have caved in, dropping a firefighter into flame.
Q: Why did the two residential units facing onto the highway keep re-igniting – sometimes long after they were already out?
A: Because they weren’t out. There are multiple stages of firefighting. The first stage is “knock-down,” which means cooling the fire, lowering the flames, and confining them to where they are. A strong defense against a fully involved structure begins with knocking down the fire so officers can get in closer, assess the fire’s behavior, and understand the structure more accurately. This enables them to plan and execute the subsequent phases, including actually putting the fire completely out.
Q: Why were firefighters carrying heavy oxygen cannisters and using oxygen masks even though they were outside?
A: Because this was not a nice oak wood fire in your backyard. This was propane gas, wood, plastic, grill grease, metal, tar paper, shingles, electronics and who knows what else. Just getting near those materials under combustion is dangerous for people’s lungs.
Q: Why did some people stand behind fire engines for five or six hours and not do anything?
A: You’re asking about the linchpins of the whole operation. They’re engineers, and they keep firefighters supplied with water. The pumps on modern fire engines are fairly complex, and they have to do a lot more than pump the water that’s on the engine itself. They have to suck in water from tenders, relay water to and from hydrants and other engines, and more. Engineers need to keep all the pumps and hoses properly pressurized all the time, and they have to be ready to act on signals from frontline fire crews. So they stay put and stay focused.
Q: Did PG&E de-energize the power line to the structure?
A: They did, early in the first hour. The power pole in question stands outside Rossi & Sons hardware. It took the PG&E worker about 8 minutes from the moment he stepped out of his truck.
Q: Why do some people have red or white helmets?
A: So everyone can quickly identify them as officers. Chiefs wear white. Captains wear red.
Q: How come our fire chief stayed in his truck the whole time?
A: Best way to do his job. He is IC, so he’s in charge of ops, logistics and medical. He’s working three or four radio channels simultaneously. He’s keeping all four sides of the burning structure in his mind’s eye, because he has to know where his people are and what they’re doing. He’s planning well ahead so that everything runs like clockwork. He’s constantly doing “what if” scenarios in his head to reduce risks for everyone on-scene. If he were to get out of his truck and start getting involved in details, he would lose control of the fire, the scene, the total picture. Oh, and by the way, you got to go home that night. He did not.
Q: When will we know what caused the fire?
A: Multiple agencies have to work together to come up with answers to that question. Watch this space.