Navy Seabees get to work on stopping California wildfires
October 29, 2007
CAMP GILLESPIE, RANCHO SAN DIEGO, Calif. — A team of Navy Seabees is using heavy equipment to build firebreaks to help prevent further spread of one of the worst of the San Diego County fires, the Harris Ranch Fire.
The group of about 46 Task Force Bulldozer sailors is from Amphibious Construction Battalion 1, based in Coronado, Calif.
After brief training in firefighting basics last week, the team arrived Saturday with four badly needed bulldozers and two water trucks, with assorted support equipment.
All of the sailors are volunteers, team leaders said.
In fact, when platoon leaders were asked to seek volunteers, virtually the entire battalion of about 500 Seabees wanted to help, said Equipment Operator 1st Class John Trujillo, 36, who supervises one of the two bulldozer crews.
The Seabees learned Tuesday that they might be tapped, Trujillo said. The “execute” order came Wednesday, but first, the Seabees were told they needed to train.
On Thursday, the team went to Marine Air Station Miramar for an eight-hour, abbreviated class given by experts from Cal Fire and the California Department of Forestry.
Then it was off to San Diego County to tackle the Harris Ranch Fire.
The fire began Oct. 21 about 9:30 a.m., and spread quickly, fueled by the Santa Ana winds.
As of Saturday morning, when the team arrived, the Harris fire was still only 50 percent contained. It had consumed 85,500 acres, killed five, and injured 16 firefighters and 21 civilians.
The area the team is working on is high in the California hills east of San Diego, about an hour and a half away on a twisting, two-lane highway.
At an elevation of about 4,000 feet and with beautiful views, the canyon is sprinkled with small farms of horses, cows and llamas.
At dusk, the team made the hourlong drive back down the canyon to Camp Gillespie, the joint fire camp for all the units responding to the San Diego County fires.
The Seabees lined up along with hundreds of weary firefighters and other volunteers, waiting patiently in the dark for a hot meal as fire trucks and other equipment gleamed in the light of dozens of generators.
The Seabees are working to bulldoze firebreaks, or cuts in the earth, that are more than 20 feet wide and cut into the steep canyon hills.
The Navy’s heavy bulldozers make relatively quick work of a task that would be nearly impossible to do by hand.
The firebreaks are critical tools in the effort to prevent the spread of wildfires, said Roddy Bauman, a branch director for Southern California.
The width of a firebreak depends on the nature of the fire, Bauman said. A break as narrow as two inches can be effective, he said, “If the fire is only two inches high.”
But the grass, brush and trees that fuel the fires here produce flames that are much higher.
If the fire is 200 hundred feet high, and the wind is strong enough, almost no break can be wide enough to be effective, Bauman said.
Terrain also plays a role in a fire’s spread. Because fire travels uphill, he said, “When you run out of hill, you run out of fire.”