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THE STATE / SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

In Riverside, State Fire Official's Absence Is a Good Sign

Daily strategy sessions end Sunday with orders sending many crews home as crisis wanes.

November 03, 2003|Daren Briscoe | Times Staff Writer

A cadre of local, state and federal fire officials held a final meeting Sunday in the Riverside war room where they've spent much of the last week, and it was a good sign that James Wright, the state's third highest ranking fire official, wasn't there.

Twice a day for eight days, the group had come together to strategize and plot against as many as 14 fires raging across Southern California.

But Sunday was the first time that the major topic of conversation was sending firefighters and equipment home. And for the first time, when Wright spoke, it wasn't in person but via conference call from Sacramento -- a sure signal that the worst was over.

Wright, a 27-year veteran of the fire service and a self-diagnosed workaholic, can gauge a fire's severity by the number of firefighters, engines or other resources it commands. He recalled a point one day early in the outbreak of the wildfires when orders for multiple strike teams began flooding into his Sacramento office.

A single strike team consists of as many as 17 firefighters, five fire engines and a chief, and Wright was most troubled by several requests for 10 and 20 strike teams at a time.

"That's a pretty hefty order of resources," said Wright, deputy director of fire protection for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "When those became the standard requests we were getting, I realized, 'Wow, this situation is really going to put a strain on the system.' "

By noon the next day he was on a plane, headed to the forestry department's Riverside headquarters, where the firefighting effort against the catastrophic storm of blazes that has swept Southern California has been coordinated since.

In the days that followed, on fire lines from Stevenson Ranch to San Diego, fire captains and battalion chiefs made the tactical decisions about where to send a particular engine -- where to, as firefighters say, "put the water on the fire."

At the same time, the larger campaign against the blazes was being orchestrated from a nondescript, low-slung compound of buildings nestled along the Riverside Freeway in Riverside.

From there, Wright and his counterparts directed the strategic war against the fires, aided by digitized aerial maps, regular updates from hundreds of fire fronts and tallies of every piece of publicly owned firefighting equipment in the state. They coordinated a mobilization of 15,000 firefighters, more than 1,000 fire engines and hundreds of helicopters, planes, bulldozers and water tankers.

"This is the group that figures out how to move 300 fire engines across the state," said Bob Martines, a CDF spokesman.

Wright likens the process to a chess game.

"Fire engines, helicopters, airplanes, those are my game pieces," he said, stressing that the stakes and scale of his career-long contest against fire make it no game at all.

Born into a firefighting family, the 50-year-old Wright grew up in San Bernardino and served as a firefighter in the Air Force before being hired as a firefighter by the forestry department, the state's largest firefighting agency, in 1977.

He has since held positions as an engineer, code and ordinance investigator, and county fire chief, and is a sworn peace officer.

Although he has seen three decades' worth of wildfires, Wright has referred to devastation wrought over the last week as "a history-altering event."

Although the fires have killed 20, including one firefighter, burned more than 740,000 acres and destroyed 4,500 structures, Wright and his colleagues try to focus on the positives: the thousands of structures saved, more than 100,000 people evacuated safely and the fact that more lives weren't lost.

Affable and politic, he appeared almost pained by the criticism that some politicians have leveled about the response to the blazes.

"They usually wait until the flames are out before they start beating you up," he said last week, his badge shrouded by a black band in memory of a firefighter killed near Julian while battling the Cedar fire. "[The criticism] was a firestorm we didn't need to fight. They were like a third flank coming at us."

Wright's boss, CDF director Andrea Tuttle, defended the firefighting decisions made behind closed doors in the conference room known as the Multi-Agency Coordination, or MAC, center.

"This is like an orchestra, and these fire services have been playing together for 100 years," Tuttle said. "Another group of players can come in, but if they haven't played with you before, they're not ready. It's not just a matter of being off tune, because in this case it can endanger lives."

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