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Ventura County

Fire Team Boss Proves He Can Take the Heat

June 14, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Raging east in the pine-lined mountains above Ojai, the Wolf fire showed no signs of slowing.

Flames from the head of the ravenous wildfire danced and leaped 100 feet in the air as it seemed to gain acres by the hour. Rare species, including the revered California condor, were in the path of the blaze.

That was the scene last week, more than 70 years since a wildfire torched the Sespe Wilderness. Now Aaron Gelobter faced the task of trying to stop it from happening again.

With a low-key personality and a view of the world seen from behind wire-rim glasses, the 50-year-old career U.S. Forest Service worker heads the elite management crew of 44 firefighters culled from across the state and given the difficult job of plotting the Wolf fire's course and stamping it out.

After some anxious moments last week, stemming from the fear that winds could shift and push the growing blaze south into Ojai, improved weather and a relentless assault by the more than 2,000 firefighters in Gelobter's command have slowed the fire to barely a crawl.

At a cost to federal, state and county agencies of more than $14 million, fire crews had the nearly 2-week-old blaze where they wanted it Thursday and expected full containment by 6 p.m. today.

"The most concern came the day after I got here because the fire had made a major run at night," said Gelobter, who arrived two days after the fire started June 1. "That caused some anxiety for me but then I knew we could catch this thing."

At first glance, Gelobter looks more like a college professor than a tough-talking wildfire commander.

But in Los Padres, he turned his troops into an army battling the enemy. On the front fire lines, hand crews split into divisions and hiked into the smoky Sespe Wilderness in single-file lines.

Tired, windburned firefighters with hand radios called in air support and talked about flanking and pinching maneuvers.

Back at the hectic base camp at Soule Park in Ojai, Gelobter and his planning and operations teams charted the fire on giant topographic maps and kept in contact with crews battling the blaze on the ground and from the air.

Gelobter is the first to admit he has more in common with an outdoor-loving ski bum than the hard-charging, take-no-prisoners types who used to lead crews in to battle wildfires.

"A lot of the old incident commanders were big, gruff guys who looked like they could knock your head off," said Gelobter, a native of Whittier who started working for the Forest Service 32 years ago. "Now we have environmental issues and political issues. I still can get pretty gruff, but I pick and choose my times to do that. Leading a group means you have to have a strong presence."

For the past two years, Gelobter has served as commander of California Incident Management Team 4. There are five teams across the state and 17 throughout the country, with headquarters in Boise, Idaho. Members of the California teams come from fire departments up and down the state and are pulled from their regular jobs when a wildfire overpowers local fire agencies.

That means leaving home for days or weeks at a time and taking up residence in tents, living with portable toilets, the occasional shower and camp food.

Gelobter of Porterville was able to break free from the wildfire long enough to drive home and see his son graduate from high school last week. He was back in camp by 11 p.m. that night. He will take another break for a few hours Saturday to see his daughter graduate from UC Santa Barbara. Then it's back to camp for final meetings before leaving.

Besides the Ojai fire, Gelobter has directed coverage for wildfires as large as a 93,000-acre blaze in the Wenatchee National Forest in Washington and as small as an 800-acre blaze this spring in New Mexico.

Like every wildfire, the Wolf fire came with a complicated jumble of safety, environmental and political concerns.

As the fire grew each day, so did the danger to the crews who were dropped into the woods to fight it. A wind shift here, a spot fire there and young fire crews--known as hot shots--could find themselves trapped by flames.

While never life-threatening, the wildfire had charred miles of brush and burned into the federally protected Sespe Wilderness. Next in its path was the condor sanctuary, the town of Piru and maybe even Ojai.

Although prohibited by law, bulldozers were needed to clear ground in the fire's path to keep it from moving to the south and east. Gelobter made a phone call to a Forest Service official who had the power to approve the move.

The bulldozers were soon in action.

For those who have spent the past 12 days working with Gelobter, his low-key, low-pressure approach is appreciated.

"He's like a calming force and you never see him rattled," said Dennis Burns, a fire behavioral specialist on Gelobter's team and a captain with the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department near Oakland. "Aaron takes it to another level. He has a genuine concern for us.

"We're leaving our families, but we're going to our second family, and we have a common goal."

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