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While many Santa Monicans have spent this week looking at apocalyptic pictures of California’s smoky skies from the safety of their homes, local firefighters are on the scene helping combat raging wildland fires. Around 30 of Santa Monica’s firefighters have been deployed in mutual aid assignments over the past six weeks, including 15 team members fighting the Creek, Dolan, Bobcat and Valley Fires this week.

The Santa Monica Fire Department provides engines, firefighters, incident leadership, or other speciality fire services through the state’s mutual aid system when fires exceed a community’s capacity to respond.

This week four SMFD firefighters were deployed to the Dolan Fire in the Los Padres National Forest. On Saturday night they hiked four miles to rescue a trapped firefighter and belay him down steep and treacherous terrain.

Currently, nine firefighters are combating the Creek Fire outside of Fresno, one Incident Commander is working on the Valley Fire east of San Diego, and one Equipment Manager is assigned to the Bobcat Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains. The four members participating in a Rapid Extraction Unit on the Dolan Fire were demobilized yesterday.

“We are in a West Coast wide fire siege that has drained resources nationally, caused us to exercise international mutual aid agreements, and we still are resource poor,” said SMFD Deputy Chief Tom Clemo. “We have seen significant rapidly growing fires that have consumed hundreds of thousands of acres. There has been a loss of life, loss of homes, and it has really stretched the system.”

SMFD has been participating in ongoing mutual aid wildland assignments since Aug 4, rotating team members out every 14 days. Earlier this month firefighters were deployed to the LNU Lightening Complex, August Complex, Apple, Stagecoach, Red Salmon Complex and Lake Fires.

This series of fires is unusually high for summer and is a result of a series of factors including extremely hot temperatures, a lack of rain, and hundreds of lightning strikes on fuel beds. Major wildfires are currently blazing across California, Washington and Oregon.

“Mutual aid has been going on for about a month and a half now and it appears we have no end in sight,” said Clemo. “October, November and December is when Southern California starts to get the Santa Anas and we start to see some significant fires. That forecast is pretty grim.”

2020 has already been a record breaking fire season. Not only have 3 million acres burned so far, but six of the largest 20 wildfires in California’s history have occurred this year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

This is predicted to worsen as Southern California enters its peak fire season this fall.

“It’s taxing, it’s taxing on families, it’s taxing on your work-rest ratio, especially some of the conditions we put people in are very difficult positions, so the duration of it is pretty substantial,” said Clemo. “You lump on COVID and the several months we’ve been dealing with that, being the tip of the spear when it comes to responding to medical incidents in a pandemic, the stresses in the fire service are the most I’ve seen in my career.”

COVID-19 protections are particularly challenging in fire camps as there can be hundreds of personnel working on a fire at one time. There are extensive measures in place to prevent the virus’s spread including video briefings, electronic plans, social distancing at bases, twice daily temperature checks and frequent sanitation.

Of the incidents Chief Clemo has worked on, only two people tested positive for COVID-19 and they are believed to have brought the virus from another state. Despite the extreme pressure this fire season has delivered on top of the pandemic, Clemo reports that the Santa Monica Fire Department feels well supported and appreciated.

“We have incredible community support for our fire department in Santa Monica,” said Clemo. “Not a day goes by that there isn’t a donation, offers of help, offers of assistance, or banners thanking the firefighters. That means a lot to us; it always has.”

Clara@smdp.com