Firefighters hone skills as summer blazes near

1,600 train with real brush fires at Camp Pendleton

By Brian Hazle

CAMP PENDLETON -- Some 1,600 local, state and federal firefighters are honing their skills here this week in preparation for what officials say could be one of the worst fire seasons in years.

The training includes fighting controlled burns, establishing fire camps and honing communication skills.

"No matter how much classroom training you have, you have to have some practical training," said Rich Hawkins, chief of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service at Cleveland National Forest. "This is total realism complete with air support."

Thanks to another drier-than-normal winter, fire officials forecast the possibility for one of the worst fire seasons in years. Already, more than 10,000 acres have burned in the state this year, compared with 2,300 during the same period in 2000.

"We are gonna see millions of acres burn this summer because of record drought up north, and the fire season never ends in Southern California," Hawkins said.

In addition, fire agencies have been hiring a large number of younger firefighters because a bevy of experienced personnel are retiring, Hawkins said.

Some 20 agencies are participating in the program, now in its 22nd year. The Camp Pendleton Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service are hosting the event.

Organizers try to make the experience as real as possible, doing everything exactly as they would for a real fire, right down to the dispatch call.

Just like real fires, these can spread quickly. Within just a few a minutes, an 8-mph wind whipped a fire set yesterday down brush-covered hills and across a small gully until it consumed close to 100 acres.

Firefighters were dispatched from a staging area on the base. After locating the fire, they set up their command structure and developed an attack strategy. The fire was out within hours.

The exercise has several side benefits. The fires reduce the amount of brush on the base, decreasing the risk of a devastating fire in the hot, dry summer months. Another benefit is that much of what burns is not native to the area, allowing for reseeding with native plants.