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LAFD Wildland Firefighters Help Battle California Fire

on October 26, 2017 - 9:54am

The scene as Los Alamos Fire Department Wildland Fire crew members travel to the Bear Fire north of Santa Cruz, Calif. last week as part of a 16-person strike crew from New Mexico. Courtesy photo


Los Alamos Daily Post

Three members of the Los Alamos Fire Department Wildland Fire team have returned from their deployment to California.

Wildland Fire Division Chief Kelly Sterna, Driver-Engineer Van Leimer and Firefighter Brian Palmer left Los Alamos Oct. 15 with the Department’s Type 5 truck and traveled to the Prado staging area in Chino, Calif. along with fire crews from Rio Rancho, Corrales, La Madera and Sandoval County.

From Chino, the 16-member New Mexico strike team headed by Rio Rancho Fire Chief Marc Sandoval was redeployed to the Bear Fire north of Santa Cruz near Boulder Creek, Chief Sterna said. When they arrived, the fire was at 200 acres and five percent contained. By the time they demobilized Saturday it was at 391 acres and 79 percent contained. Four structures were destroyed in the fire and nine people were injured due to the steep and treacherous terrain.

As of Tuesday, firefighters were continuing to maintain the containment lines and mop up the area.

“When state resources are stretched thin, with the amount of fire they are dealing with in California, they are happy to see agencies from other states who provide assistance is available under Emergency Management Assistance Agreements,” Sterna said.

A typical day for the New Mexico team involved a 6 a.m. briefing at the communications center followed by travel time to the fire location.  Then the crew would spend 12 to 16 hours in the rugged terrain suppressing and mopping up fire as well as plumbing a progressive line and using it to mop up into the interior of the fire.

Sterna said the crew was fortunate to be able to sleep in hotels which was a nice surprise considering they had all their camping gear set up when they found out they would get to sleep in beds.

Sterna said all the fire personnel are trained in the Incident Command System which is a standardized approach to the command, controls and coordination of emergency response that provides a common hierarchy within which responders from multiple agencies can be effective. He said this allowed the New Mexico crew to easily integrate with the California operation. He said the biggest thing was for them to gather local information such as what type of afternoon winds are experienced in the area so that they were not going in empty handed.

“It was a good experience. We are looking forward to getting more of this type of experience and bringing it back to Los Alamos,” he said.

LAFD Chief Troy Hughes agreed that the deployment was good experience for LAFD.

“We have a huge potential to have a wildland fire in Los Alamos County and we are doing what we can to prepare,” he said. “It is also important to build relationships with other fire agencies.”

Sterna joined the Los Alamos Fire Department in 2005 with a background in wildland fire from Red River Volunteer Fire Department. He started out as a firefighter, went through the fire academy and went out on trucks. Then he became a driver-engineer in 2007 and was promoted to captain in 2009 on the A shift in White Rock. He was recently promoted to Wildland Fire Division Chief following the retirement of Chief Ramon Garcia. Sterna is a native of Deadwood, SD.

In his new position, Sterna wants to continue to educate the public on ways provide defensible space for their homes through site visits, home assessments and public information campaigns. He said the Department has received a Homeland Security-related grant and that home assessment is one of the components of that grant.

Since 1977, five fires have burned more than 5,000 and despite the abundance of lightning strikes in the area, those five fires were all human-caused.

Sterna said the training in steep terrain in California is very valuable because one in every seven homes in Los Alamos lies on a canyon edge. He said fires often run rapidly up steep slopes and are often pushed up or down canyons by wind patterns.

He said the ecosystem in Los Alamos has changed and used area below Pajarito Mountain Ski Area as an example because the new vegetation can cause a flashy fire with heat and flames that have the potential to cause a large fire very quickly.

Also, 90 percent of Los Alamos County is undeveloped and has the potential source for a fire that could move into the urban area. Because of the terrain the town is built on, the entire community lies within what’s called the wildland urban interface where natural landscapes and structures meet. The is creates an environment in which fire can move readily between structural and vegetation fuels and increases the likelihood that wildfires will threaten structures and people.

​The LAFD website has links to several websites containing information on ways to minimize wildland fire damage including “Ready Set Go”, “Firewise”, “Fire Adapted Communities” and “Wildland Fire Action Guide”. 

Los Alamos Fire Department's Brush 1, a Type 5 unit, at the Bear Fire north of Santa Cruz, Calif. Courtesy photo 

Los Alamos Fire Department Wildland Fire DIvision Chief Kelly Sterna checks California fire updates on his return to Los Alamos. Photo by Maire O'Neill/