Santa Paula: A Perfect Storm and a Perfect Team

By Sheryl Hamlin

On December 18, 2017 Fire Chief Rick Araiza presented a flashback of the past fourteen days when the Thomas Fire broke out during another council meeting on December 4, 2017.

Chiefs Plott and Araiza

The Team and Fortuitous Events

The fire was fought with a “perfect team”, said Araiza, along with help from numerous fortuitous events, including the arrival of Assistant Chief Norm Plott, who according to the report was extremely hands-on and made daring operational decisions. Previously with county fire, Chief Plott was just one week on the job in Santa Paula.

Thomas Fire Staffing, Source: SPFD

Utility 81, not normally on duty, was quickly put into service, as well as all members of SPFD, except for one out of town and one out on injury. Luckily CalFIRE crews trimmed trees and brush in the Oaks recently which improved ingress/egress. Also within the past year, the GHAD worked with CalFIRE to clear the hill around the hospital homes of dangerous brush. The city never lost water. Public works kept the pumps operational with generators. The airport became a heli-port and was transformed operationally much like during situations of national defense.

The Oaks

The initial command center in Mill Park provided access to the Oaks and the Upper Ojai areas where the fire started. The fire quickly spread to the Oaks. The Royal Oaks neighborhood was threatened and almost lost homes. At the 1300 Block of Ojai Road, seven homes are built on a private driveway below a big bowl which lit up and caused heat to descend to the private drive, where a garage was lost.

Chief Plott, on site in the Oaks, said fires on Maple, Mariposa, Cliff Drive and Mupu School were fought individually in order to avoid a “domino affect” with one fire moving to another.

Anecdotal reports on Facebook said the fire burned the hill west of the historic Hardison House, where nearby neighbors helped abate the fire.

Eucalyptus Torches

With Norm Plott in command, reports of tree fires near Howie Court and Bradley Street were reported. Norm got three helicopters from the Santa Paula Heli-Base (aka Santa Paula Airport, which was closed to private transportation during the fire). The helicopters made drops for several hours on burning eucalyptus trees. Firefighters stretched lines between the homes. The flame was so hot that structures were ignited. Porches and patios were on fire in this area. Thirteen engines, almost half of the county’s coverage, and three water dropping helicopters battled the eucalyptus tree fire.

Coronado Circle

According to Chief Araiza, the work at this location had only a 50-50 chance of success, but the winds and excellent execution provided the tipping point.

During the past year, CalFIRE, working with the GHAD who manages the land around the hospital homes, provided a major brush pruning on the hillside. The firebreaks prevented the fire from going around the hill to the hospital and the rest of the city. Firefighters tied a line from June Street up to Coronado Circle. According to Chief Plott, this was a tough installation with a low success probability. Note that there is also a row of flammable eucalyptus trees near the hospital.

Vice Mayor Garman, who lives on Coronado Circle, said that he heard ‘Chief Norm’ 50 to 60 times … Nonstop. Leadership Amazing.

Citizen Fire Brigades

Chief Plott thanked the citizens for participation in the fire brigades. He said that he saw citizens everywhere helping with the fire.

Standing Ovation

At the end of Chief Araiza’s presentation there was a standing ovation from the packed room. The Chief, notably emotional and tired, thanked his excellent team and lauded Chief Plott.

Presentation of Certificates of Appreciation

After this presentation, the council presented certificates of appreciation to those citizens who had participated in the fire. Below is a group of picture of those present.

Citizens Arranging for Group Picture

To watch the presentation, click here.

To read a previous report on this meeting, click here.

For more information on author click sherylhamlin dot com

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