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 a disaster consumes her home. This drama unfolds in a community miles away from the towns that would come to help in times of crisis.
All times are from the official Incident Report.
Tuesday, May 29, 2018.
Incident Number: 18-CASLU 005543
Incident Name: PINEWOOD
Event Number: 18007179
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 well-trained and alert operator 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.
Cambria Fire Department’s “A” shift was halfway through a 48-hour shift. Under the command of Captain Emily Torlano, the team comprises 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, a critical resource 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 about an hour earlier from a callout. 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 a 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 reviewed 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, and 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 her information. We train for these events, so the steps we take are familiar. But you don’t know everything until you get to the scene.”
1:40:56 AM – On Scene
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. A neighbor, a nurse, is treating an injured resident, and 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, I report 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 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 towards the fire, neatly spooling out the line. Murdoch readied the hydrant. Clear obstructions, remove the hydrant cap, open the valve and flush out debris. Close the valve, connect and secure the hose to the hydrant. Re-open the valve when the engine connects 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.”
With the 4″ line connected to the water source, it’s Engineer Michael Burkey’s turn.
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 cutting through the light fog and lighting up the night sky. Priority one was locating the hydrant and positioning the engine where we could deploy the supply line and tools quickly and safely. I then drove the engine towards the fire, stopping just forward of the house. This position 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 front and back of the wheels. Then, I disconnected the end of the main supply line from its mooring and reattached it to the engine pump. I signaled 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 can put out 500 gallons a minute at high velocity, and two people usually manage it, but nobody else was available then. Poelman deployed 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. The physical strength needed to manage this task is not trivial.
“Ian is 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.
Poelman realized 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 not to 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? 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
The fire was blowing out the windows at the back of the house when Firefighters from Cal Fire Station 10 arrived on the scene. They 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 to monitor. Burkey focuses on the controls, adjusting them as necessary to ensure the firefighters always have the proper 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. It felt like hours, but it was maybe 10 minutes.”
The two engines worked in synchronicity and contained the fire safely from the exterior. 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, a combination of heated smoke, steam, and pockets of flame met them. 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 grabbed for something to burn.
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 backed out to 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. They found and released the overhead latch, manually lifted the door, and vented the garage.
The interior crew did a primary search, confirming 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 five items of clothing… grasping to save something…” Capt. Emily Torlano
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
1:30:27 AM – Cayucos Fire Dispatched
1:52:35 AM – Cayucos reports unable to find an operator
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
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 is one of the broader 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, adding minutes to their response. They were assigned to work with the CFD team on the interior of the building. The joint team crawled through the attic – not the safest task, but critical in ensuring that the fire didn’t reappear later. 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 response team from Templeton provided a critical piece of equipment that allowed the firefighters to continue working safely. Their emergency vehicle carries “breathing support” – a system that refills the air bottles the responders use to breathe 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.
Even with this support, the firefighters are under significant physical duress. They take breaks to hydrate, rest, and check teammates to ensure they aren’t injured or unable to continue on the fire. This taxes resources and is an ever-present concern for all responders.
The response continued for several hours. Constant check-ins revealed all personnel was accounted for and released as they completed their assignments. As 4 AM approached, most responders were on their way back to their stations.
The Cambria Fire Department remained on scene with their water tender to continue cleanup and monitor for potential flare-ups.
11:34:30 AM – Cambria Water Tender released.
Time from the first contact to final scene departure – 10 hours, 6 minutes.
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 – cleanup and inspection.
During a fire, a host of substances fly everywhere, covering equipment, tools, protective gear, clothes, skin, and everything in between. Before leaving the scene, the crew strips off and bags their gear, keeping as many contaminants out of the truck as possible. Back at the firehouse, that gear goes to the laundry room – a simple term describing a complex decontamination process. Every piece is cleaned and checked before being put away. Each hose is unfolded, inspected for damage, pressure cleaned, and put back into proper position. They wash the engine and scrub the interior with decontamination solutions.
The firefighters must shower to remove any grime and potentially harmful particles from 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 their shift has ended, they can relax. Or, if the shift continues, stay ready for the next call.
“A” shift continued for another day. The team responded to an emergency cardiac distress medical call where Captain Torlano, a certified and licensed Paramedic, found herself cardioverting a patient – (shocking the heart out of lethal rhythm) as 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.