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Fire interrupted the May night, bringing the residents of a quietly beautiful neighborhood out to the street, fearful and perhaps momentarily confused by what they were seeing. A house, no, a home was glowing and snarling with the fury of a thousand nightmares. A neighbor, injured and in pain, seeks help as her home is consumed by a disaster. All of this drama unfolds in a community that stands some distance apart from the towns that would come to help in times of crisis.

All times taken from the official Incident Report. 
Tuesday, May 29, 2018.
Incident Number: 18-CASLU 005543
Incident Name: PINEWOOD
Event Number: 18007179

It Begins

1:28:56 AM – With a keystroke, an emergency operator connects to an incoming caller, urgently reporting a fire in the Pine Knolls area of Cambria. The operator, well-trained and alert, takes in the information that sets an incident response in motion. 

05/29/2018 1:30:08 ROOF ON FIRE, CAN SEE IT FROM HER HOME, SOMEONE YELLING FOR HELP - from dispatch report

1:30: 28 AM– Based on the caller’s input, the operator executes the dispatch protocol, and the Emergency Services response begins.

On Duty
Cambria Fire Department’s “A” shift was on duty, halfway through a 48-hour shift. The team, under the command of CFD Captain Emily Torlano, is made up of Engineer Michael Burkey, SAFER Firefighter Ian Poelman, and Reserve Firefighter Tim Murdoch.

Their primary response unit, Engine 5792 was parked in the bay, ready to go. Additional response units include an older, backup engine, and a water tender which is a critical unit in areas where water is not always readily available.  An emergency response vehicle, carrying the tools and technology needed to support the often dangerous response and rescue operations sits ready.

1:32:28 AM – Dispatch

Firefighter Ian Poelman walks through his response to the call.

“We had returned to the station from a callout about an hour earlier. I was in my assigned room, resting. We were in the middle of our 48 hour shift, so you grab what sleep you can. I heard the bells coming through the speaker in the room. The dispatcher’s tone was slightly more urgent than usual, and his report of a structure fire with potential injury told me this was a serious incident. The team responded immediately, falling into the process we have learned. Dress and go. As we took our places on the engine, I went through my mental checklist of all the steps we would take during the response.”

1:33:53 AM – Engine en route

“Our mobile GPS was launched.  Maps popped up with a location and route. The incident response binder showed us the locations of nearby hydrants. Captain Torlano went through her routine, devising an initial plan based on the information she had. We train for these events, so a lot of the steps we take are familiar. But you don’t know everything until you get to the scene.”

1:40:56 AM – On Scene

As the ranking officer first on the scene, Captain Torlano became the Incident Commander. The responsibility for directing the response and managing the assignments for all the crews that would eventually join the fight was hers. The Captain describes the scene and her decision-making process.

“I was the incident commander. I did my walk around, sized up the situation, and eliminated rescue. There was an injured resident who was being treated by a neighbor, who is a nurse. I released the patient to the ambulance crew that had arrived on scene.”

1:42:52 AM – Cambria Healthcare District Ambulance on scene
1:43:58 AM – Patient Contact
1:53:10 AM – Patient Transport

Torlano continues. “Neighbors were yelling at us in distress as fire consumed the house and threatened their homes and the other precious exposures – the forest.   After completing my walk around and reporting to dispatch we still don’t have water on the fire.”

Firefighter Poelman describes what the team was doing as Captain Torlano made her assessment.

“We located the nearest hydrant, and Firefighter Murdoch executed his assignment. He grabbed the hydrant bag from the back of the engine and began unreeling the 4” line that would deliver water from the hydrant to the engine. He wrapped it around the hydrant and secured it. The truck then moved forward towards the fire, neatly spooling out the line. Murdoch went through the process of readying the hydrant. Clear any obstructions around the hydrant. Remove the hydrant cap. Open the valve and flush out any debris. Close the valve. Connect and secure the hose to the hydrant. Reopen the valve when the engine was connected at the other end.

Captain Torlano adds, “My firefighter at the hydrant is the one in-town reserve. He is like a Jedi – extremely knowledgeable and methodical. I am grateful he was there.”

The 4” line is connected to the water source. It is now Engineer Michael Burkey’s turn.

Engineer

As the Engineer on the crew, Michael Burkey’s responsibilities are critical and time-sensitive. He shares his view of the response.

“We knew the call was serious, because the tones kept sounding, indicating a significant event requiring a significant response. As I drove the engine towards the fire, I recalled that I had been on this very street hours earlier responding to a medical assist call. We approached the intersection and got a good look at the fire that was cutting through the light fog and lighting up the night sky.  Priority one was locating the hydrant, and positioning the engine where the supply line and tools could be deployed quickly and safely. Once that was done, I drove the engine towards the fire, stopping just forward of the house. This gave us the best view of the scene and more importantly allowed us to lay out our lines cleanly without unnecessary obstacles. I secured the engine, chocking the wheels front and back. Then, I disconnected the end of the main supply line from its mooring and reattached it to the engine pump. I signalled Tim Murdoch that we were ready to receive water.”

 We all finish getting our scba’s on to protect our airways, and I notice there is still no water on the fire… the neighbors are getting anxious as am I… I see hands raised, yelling, fists- I have no more bodies…Captain Torlano

Let it flow

Connections are now complete, and Engineer Berkey has the engine’s pumping system charged, balanced and ready to go. The Incident Commander instructs Burkey and  Poelman to pull the 2.5” diameter hose and begin attacking the fire. This particular hose has the capability of putting out 500 gallons a minute at high velocity. It is usually managed by two people, but there was nobody else available at that moment. Poelman deployed what is called a “hotel coil” where the nozzle is fed under the coiled hose, and then the operator kneels on it to help control the powerful stream of water. Firefighter Poelman is, as some might describe, a strapping young man. Even so, the level of physical strength needed to manage this task is not trivial.

 “Ian is now our hero as he douses massive amounts of water on the fire. But the cooling does not squelch the flames as I had hoped…” Captain Torlano reports.

Situational Awareness

Poelman realized that he was not getting the best angle on the fire, so he repositioned himself closer to the flaming front of the house and re-engaged. He shares, “We’re trained to maintain situational awareness, and not to get tunnel vision. It can be hard to not lock in on what is in front of you, with flames jumping out, wood popping and cracking, smoke and steam just feet away. Was it hot? Well, I could feel the heat a bit through my boots, and behind my mask.”

1:35:03 AM Cal Fire en route
1:42:01 AM Cal Fire on scene

Firefighters from Cal Fire Station 10 have arrived on the scene, geared up and are given their assignments.

The fire was blowing out the windows at the back of the house. The Cal Fire crew quickly attached one of the 1.75″ hoses to the CFD engine and went down the side of the house to gain access to the rear of the building. They trained their hose on the fire, sandwiching the blaze between themselves and Poelman, who was still engaging from the front.

Engineer Burkey now has two active lines plus the intake hose to manage. Each line has different pressure levels that need to be tightly monitored. Burkey focuses on the controls, adjusting them as needed to ensure the firefighters always have the right amount of water pressure to do the job.

“I knew the Cal Fire team was putting water on the fire when I saw steam rise over the roof where their attack met the flames,” Poelman recounts.  

Captain Torlano adds, “They saved the two houses next door. All of this felt like hours, but it was really maybe 10 minutes.”

Teamwork

The two engines worked in synchronicity and contained the fire safely from the exterior. When the fire volume had been contained enough, Captain Torlano ordered Poelman and Murdoch to take up the second 1.75″ hose and enter the house from the front to continue the fight. The two men quickly connected the hose and did a “buddy check” to make sure they had all their gear securely in place and ready to go. With everything ready, they entered, as the Cal Fire crew continued their efforts from the rear of the house.

As they entered, they were met with a combination of heated smoke, steam, and pockets of flame. They poured water on the fire, advancing steadily into the house, turning right towards the kitchen, where it seems the fire originated. They trained the hose on the ceiling over the stove, where flickering flames still grabbed for something to burn.

Moving

With the flames extinguished, they heard the Incident Commander asking if they could find an entry into the adjacent garage, where the fire was still active. Smoke and steam made it difficult to see much, even as the two men got down close to the floor where the air was less dense. With no clear path to the garage, they were ordered to back out and see if they could gain access from the front of the garage. Unable to raise the locked door, they proceeded down the side of the structure, meeting up with the Cal Fire crew who located an exterior door that led to the garage. Upon entry, they were able to find and release the overhead latch, manually lift the door and enable the garage space to vent.

The interior crew did a primary search, confirming there was nobody else inside the house. They faced, as described by Captain Torlano, “a severely destroyed house, with huge amounts of damaged structural members, tangled wires; essentially a very fragile shell.”

They brought out a photo album with burnt but salvageable photos and about 5 items of clothing… grasping to save something…” Capt. Emily Torlano

Support

As the incident progressed, more help arrived from the surrounding communities under the Mutual Aid agreements.

01:30:27 AM - Cal Fire Battalion Chief Dispatched
01:36:05 AM - en route
01:54:01 AM - on scene

Second engine requested by Cal Fire

01:52:34 AM – Cal Fire Headquarters Engine Dispatched
01:59:00 AM –Engine en route
2:20: 40 AM – Engine on scene

  Cayucos

1:30:27 AM – Cayucos Fire Dispatched
1:52:35 AM – Cayucos reports unable to find an operator 
for engine

 and Morro Bay

01:30:27 AM – Morro Bay Fire dispatched
01:34:56 AM – en route
02:01:24 AM – on scene

And from over the hill

01:30:28 AM – Templeton Fire Dispatched
01:36:37 AM - en route 
02:09:20 AM - on scene

 Logistics

As the response continued, Captain Torlano dealt with real-time issues. The neighborhood sits near the top of a fairly steep hill, making it challenging for responding engines and support vehicles to get close to the fire. The street itself is one of the wider and well-maintained roads, but it quickly became tough to manage the logistics of each responding agency. The Morro Bay truck and crew had to park a distance away, then grab their tools and gear and walk the rest of the way to the scene. This added minutes to their response. When they got to the fire, they were assigned to work with the CFD team on the interior of the building. Ian Poelman describes the combined efforts. “We continued to search out any pockets of fire that might still be burning. We used our tools to punch holes in the ceilings and the drywall, where fires can smolder undetected for some time. Tiring work but that is what we train for – mentally and physically.” The team ended up crawling through the attic – not the safest task, but critical in ensuring that the fire didn’t reappear later.

Just Breathe

Meanwhile, the response team from Templeton provided a critical piece of equipment that allowed the firefighters to continue working safely. Their emergency vehicle carries what is called “breathing support” – a system that refills the air bottles that the responders use to breath as they do their work. These bottles supply about 30 minutes of air and begin beeping as the remaining supply reaches a critical level. With this tone, the firefighters must withdraw and replace their air supply. The Templeton refill system allows for continuous and rapid resupply, keeping the firefighters in the game.

Keeping watch 

Even with this support, the firefighters are under significant physical duress and have to take breaks to hydrate, rest and be checked by a teammate to make sure they aren’t injured or otherwise unable to continue on the fire. This taxes resources and is an ever-present concern for all responders.

Winding Down

The response continued on for several hours. Constant check-ins revealed all personnel accounted for, and resources were released as they completed their assignments. As 4 AM approached, most responders were on their way back to their stations.

The Cambria Fire Department team remained on scene to continue cleanup and to monitor for potential flare-ups. Cambria Fire also deployed their water tender, which could quickly provide support if needed.

11:34:30 AM – Cambria Water Tender released.

Time from the first contact to final scene departure – 10 hours, 6 minutes.

Back Home

The fire was out, but the work continued for “A” shift. Far from taking a break, the crew went into the next phase of their job – clean up and inspection.

During a fire, a whole host of substances fly everywhere, covering equipment, tools, protective gear, clothes, skin and everything in between. Before leaving the scene, the crew strips off all their gear and bags it, with the goal of keeping as many contaminants out of the truck as possible. Back at the firehouse, that gear goes to the laundry room – a simple term to describe a complex process of decontamination. Every piece of gear is cleaned and checked before being put away. Each hose is unfolded, inspected for damage, pressure cleaned and put back into proper position. The engine is washed, the interior scrubbed with decontamination solutions. 

Preventive Measures

The firefighters must then shower to remove any grime and potentially harmful particles that may have found them during the incident. They must also, within 24 hours do one hour of strenuous, sweat-making exercise to help sweat out any potential carcinogens or other harmful matter. Another shower, then, if the shift has ended, they can relax. Or, if the shift continues, stay ready for the next call.

Coda

For Captain Torlano, the shift continued for another day. During that shift, her team was called for an emergency cardiac distress medical response. Captain Torlano, who is also a fully certified Paramedic, found herself cardioverting the patient – (shocking the heart out of lethal rhythm) and her SAFER firefighter, who is also a paramedic, began an IV. An ambulance arrived and transported the patient to the hospital, with the firefighter riding along to continue assisting.

And on it goes, day to day, shift to shift.