Camp 8 Air Attack ready for high fire season

The fire crew is often the first to arrive when a fire is reported, and is flown directly into the midst of a blaze.

By Stephen Dorman/Special to The Malibu Times

They’re the first ones in, and the last ones to leave, when a wildfire hits.

With a dangerous fire season forecasted (L.A. Times, Aug. 9), the Camp 8 Air Attack crew, based high atop the Santa Monica Mountains at the peak of Las Flores Canyon Road, is ready to roll at any moment.

Their job is simple in theory, yet perilous in execution-help contain out-of-control wildfires from the inside out.

“The job these guys do is one of the most hazardous in the Fire Department,” Camp 8 Firecrew Supervisor Mark Collet said. “They’ll see more fire in their first two years than a boot firefighter will-coming out of the tower-in five years.”

When a fire is reported, especially in the Malibu area, Air Attack is often the first crew to arrive on the scene, sometimes more than a half-hour before ground support can disembark. They are typically flown in via a Blackhawk or Bell Company 412 helicopter, whichever is available to the station during the time of need.

“Basically, we get flown into fires by chopper and are inserted mid-flank where our job is to stop the egress of the fire,” Collet said. “Sometimes we get to it and sometimes we don’t.”

Depending on the size of the blaze and immediate availability of personnel, the crew normally arrives about six to seven people at a time. Upon arrival, the team exits the chopper in the “green” (areas that are not yet burned) and quickly disburses, tools in hand, looking to contain the advancing fire by clearing brush and or digging small trenches. All their techniques such as working in conjunction with the helicopter while it does continuous water drops have been fine-tuned through tedious practice sessions.

Fighting wildfires is both a physically and mentally grueling task that can often last days or even weeks at a time, as was the case during the 1993 Malibu fires that destroyed more than 260 structures. It is also not uncommon for the crew to set up camp and sleep near fire locations in order to replenish its stamina. By law, they can be kept onsite for 14 days before being relieved for the required two days of rest.

“Every fire we go on is crazy,” first-year Fire Suppression Aide Zach Shirreffs said. “When I went through training, it was probably the most defining moment in my life because it pushed me to physical limits I’ve never been to before.”

In order to qualify for consideration in the Air Attack squad, applicants must complete a four-week training session that includes more than 160 hours of instruction and specialized preparation with hands-on tool use. They must also pass both oral and written tests as part of the process. One of the final goals is to finish a two-mile vertical climb through the local mountains in less than three hours while in full gear and carrying tools such as axes and chainsaws.

“We become like brothers,” Fire Suppression Aide Tony Castaneda said about the training and on-the-job experiences. “Everybody here is really close and you get to know each other’s habits, which allows you to build friendships.”

Air Attack often receives assistance from several of the local male and female probation camps, where low-risk inmates can work off sentence time in the field for minimal pay, typically $1.45 per day. Collet said it gives the prisoners an opportunity to get out from behind jail cells and help contribute to the good of society.

“I even had some inmates seek a professional career afterward,” Collet said.

With Malibu’s fire season fast approaching, the zenith being the months of September and October, homeowners are being urged to take all necessary precautions to protect their property.

“The best thing [local homeowners] can do is their weed abatement, that would be No. 1,” Collet said. “We all like our privacy and our green lush stuff, but what’s happening is people are letting brush come too close to their homes and it’s becoming almost indefensible. When that happens, we can’t get in the area to protect those homes.”

And while firefighters will do whatever is necessary to protect homes when danger is imminent, there comes a time when they have to factor in all of the risks involved.

“We have a job that we must do and we do put our lives on the line a lot more than anybody else,” Collet said. “But there is a time and a place where we have to say ‘I cannot save this house without possibly losing my life.’ Now is that fair? To me it is-it’s fair to my family. I mean, [we] can only do so much.”

When they’re not fighting fires, Air Attack remains busy by assisting both the local police and fire departments in times of need. Whether it’s rebuilding structures damaged by high surf during the winter months or answering a homeowner’s request to remove a rattlesnake from their property, they are always willing to pitch in.

“People get the impression that firefighters sit in recliners playing cards or watching [television], but that’s not the case with these guys,” Collet said. “Our guys are constantly doing something throughout the day.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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