Fighting Wildfires, California Style, Part 1

The standard Cal Fire truck. A Wildfire Type 3 truck, designated internally as the “Model 34”.

Wildfire is a big threat, and must be prepared for in many parts of the U.S, especially in the West. California is unique in that it has huge numbers of people living in what is called the “interface”, where civilization bumps up against and mingles with wilderness. One long-running quip is that, in California, one can go from the beaches, to the mountains, to the deserts, in just 2 or 3 hours driving time. It is mostly true, and when many of California’s 39 million people live either adjacent to, or right in the middle of, the native chaparral and forests, it is only a matter of time until dangerous large fires need to be fought.

A typical wildfire fire truck in the late 1930s. In this case, a U.S. Forest Service vehicle.

One can argue the wisdom of home building in the middle of, or on the fringes of the California wilderness, but that cat is already out of the bag. The homes are there. As California is a big state, a very wealthy state, and has huge numbers of people living in the wilderness interface, California’s wildfire fighting strategies and equipment have become highly evolved.

If you live in or near the California “interface” between civilization and wilderness, prepare to endure wildfires.

Of California’s 105 million acres, 1/3, or about 34 million acres, are forest. The federal government owns over half of the California forests, or about 19 million acres. The State of California only owns about 1.6 million acres of forest, and private entities own the other 13.3 million acres, roughly evenly split between corporate/industrial owners and private individuals. Don’t worry, there won’t be a test.

Looked at another way, the area of California is divided between about 33% forests, 40% agriculture, and 27% everything else. Those satellite photos really do show a place with wide open spaces of extraordinary size, and, so too, areas of massive crowds of people. About 9 million acres of California is considered volatile brushland, where fires are most easily started and spread very quickly. Interesting (to me, anyway) is that for the entire U.S., the “33% forest, 40% agriculture, 27% everything else” is also true. California’s land use pattern is an almost exact microcosm of the national land use pattern.

The CDF employed a variety of makes and specifications, prior to beginning a standardization of equipment in the late 1960s and 1970s. Here is an older IH-based CDF fire truck being used for driver training in 1965.

How much of California burns in wildfires each year? Historically, it has been in the hundreds of thousands of acres per year. At the time, 1970 was an extraordinary fire season, burning about half a million acres, many of them in a two-week period in late September and early October. The fall of 1970 demonstrated a need to sharply raise the quantity and variety of wildfire fighting equipment and of the number of firefighters on call. Things changed in California after 1970. But recent years have wildly raised the number of acres burned. 2018 was the biggest fire season on record at the time, burning 2 million acres. 2019 was relatively quiescent, at 250,000 acres. But 4.4 million acres of California woodlands burned in 2020, and another 2 1/2 million acres in 2021. 2022 looks likely (knock wood) to burn about half a million acres in California, more or less, at the current rate. What was once an extraordinarily large and devastating wildfire season (as in 1970) is now a relatively small one.

A shiny CDF Ford truck, circa 1965, also undergoing driver training.

Firefighting in California is largely shared by the U.S. Forest Service (“USFS”, in the national parks), local and regional fire departments, and the California Division of Forestry (“CDF”), the original state predecessor of which was established in 1885, and adopted the name “Cal Fire” at the beginning of 2007. GPS, satellite navigation and tracking, airborne observation, and complex communication systems, allow the various firefighting agencies to closely coordinate their operations, and also track both the individual firefighters and the pieces of firefighting apparatus of all agencies in real time, with high accuracy. Typically, one fire agency is given “lead” status on larger or more threatening wildfires, and in California, Cal Fire often directs the multiagency firefighting efforts. While the State of California is not a huge landowner, as a percentage of the state, Cal Fire has an “area of (fire protection) responsibility” covering about 1/3 of the state.

A CDF fire truck of uncertain make (GMC?) being used in firefighting drills, early-1960s.

Cal Fire employs ground attacks and aerial attacks on wildfires. Part 1 will look at Cal Fire’s ground assets and strategies, and Part 2 will cover the Cal Fire air fleet. Fighting a wildfire involves both impeding forward progress of the fire (“containing” it), and also physically knocking down and extinguishing the flames. Containment is the primary goal, especially if the fire initially goes out of control, as firefighters attempt to stop the spread of the flame front. Barring containment, firefighters attempt to direct the fire away from structures and people, and into unpopulated areas, if that is all that can be done in the moment. Cal Fire and other fire fighting agencies will often describe their ongoing efforts in terms of “containment”, as a percentage of the flame front, as that is the most accurate description of what they are trying to do in the short run. The percentage of fire “contained” is also a mathematically quantitative measure of their success over time, instead of a qualitative opinion of “how things are going”.

The “Pulaski Tool”, universally used by firefighters, for clearing brush and creating defensible spaces.

Fire fighting on the ground involves the time tested methods of digging firebreaks by hand with shovels or “Pulaski Tools”, grading with bulldozers, or the employment of the occasional deliberately set “backfire” (which clears a defensible space, on the spot, through a controlled burn). Natural firebreaks, such as rock formations, fallow farmland, recent fires having already cleared the area, defensible space maintained by local residents, or roads and trails, are all employed and incorporated into the fire lines, to surround and contain the fire with defensible open space. The problem, during the hot and dry fire season, is that flaming embers will get blown ahead of the fire, sometimes miles ahead, starting new fires on the other side of the fire lines and the defensible spaces. There is no counter for that, other than to attack the new fires as they develop.

If one travels in areas near a wildfire, one will often see fire apparatus deployed in those areas, but not “doing anything”. These are the units employed in stopping the new fires as they establish themselves ahead of the fire lines. Much like stationing idle tow trucks on the freeways during rush hour, to immediately clear any stalled vehicles or collision victims, so the fire units are deployed in likely areas for fires to develop, given fire conditions, wind patterns, and local geography. Cal Fire and other fire fighting agencies have developed, over time, a very good understanding of how landforms, various types and concentrations of plant material, and localized weather patterns can send a fire in certain directions rather than others.

From the description of matters so far, it is obvious that wildfire containment and firefighting requires huge resources. How many firefighters with shovels, fire trucks, and bulldozers, does it take to contain a wildfire? There is no set number, but, for a large, uncontained wildfire, a deployment of resources typically numbers in the thousands of people and hundreds of pieces of fire apparatus.

Cal Fire has established a large and flexible body of people and equipment. Searching the internet, one must be careful, because the quoted number of units and people typically includes those of coordinating entities, including the Forest Service and local firefighting agencies. For the record, Cal Fire employs about 6,100 people full-time, along with an additional 2,600 seasonal employees. 3,400 inmates and Civilian Conservation Corps (“CCC”) members round out the number of people involved, and most of these 12,100 people serve on the fire lines.

Including coordinating agencies, the numbers roughly triple, as do the numbers of available fire apparatus. This has to do with the sharing arrangements between the various firefighting agencies. It is also not unheard of for California firefighters to be deployed to other states, as conditions require and allow, and out-of-state firefighting agencies can be brought in to fight California wildfires, under extraordinary circumstances. The trick is to be flexible, and to put the firefighting capabilities where they are needed, as quickly as possible, and used in an effective manner through information-gathering, information-sharing, and coordination. Wildfire fighting is like a military campaign. It can only be so proactive. A lot of it must be reactive to conditions on the ground, which cannot always be planned for.

For all of its size, Cal Fire employs a minimum number of types of vehicle, and keeps its own fleet highly standardized. Wildfire fighting, in the past, often employed a somewhat haphazardly assembled fleet of fire fighting equipment, typically with a minimum of functions, but with a variety of sources and specifications. Cal Fire now uses what is called a Wildfire Type 3 vehicle as its basic fire fighting truck.

The Cal Fire Wildfire Type 3 truck, serving its assigned task. Note the aerial attack in the upper left background.

A Wildfire Type 3 is considered the most versatile and effective wildfire fire truck. Types 1 and 2 are trucks used to fight structure fires, employing smaller water tanks (as they are intended to be hooked up to fire hydrants), pumping higher flows of water at lower pressure. They are designed to fight fires while stationary. These trucks carry ladders and larger quantities of fire hose. Type 1 and 2 trucks are what one thinks of when one pictures a typical fire truck.

Wildfire Type 3 trucks are equipped with a minimum 500 gallon water tank, a minimum 150 gallon-per-minute pump, pumping at 250 psi, and 1,000 feet of 1-1/2 inch diameter hose, and 500 feet of 1 inch hose. They typically have a second, higher capacity pump for drawing from external water sources. These days, most Type 3 trucks are four-wheel-drive, and all new Type 3 trucks employ a “pump-and-roll” capacity, so that they may pump water from their internal water tank, while the truck is in motion. The road speed is typically only 2 to 3 miles per hour, but the feature does allow the trucks to be mobile while fighting fires that are moving around (unlike the typical structure fire, where both the burning building and the fire apparatus are stationary). A Gross Vehicle Weight Rating of over 26,000 lb is the standard for a Type 3 truck, as are seats for at least three personnel.

Wildfire trucks go from Type 3 up to Type 7. Type 4 specifications are skewed towards larger water tanks and lower capacity hoses and pumps, a personnel minimum of 2, not 3, but still the 26,000+lb GVWR. Types 5, 6, and 7 have progressively lower capacities and lesser capabilities, though all new wildfire trucks have the “pump-and-roll” feature, and most are four wheel drive. The Type 5 maintains the 26k+lb GVWR, but the Type 6 shows a GVWR of 19,500 lb, and the Type 7 clocks in at 14k for the GVWR. The Types 6 and 7 usually have the exterior appearance of a heavy-duty pickup truck service bed arrangement.

A U.S. Forest Service Wildfire Type 6 truck, internally designated a “Model 641U” (“U” for “utility bed”). Lighter capacity, lesser capabilities. Cal Fire, with a highly standardized fleet, does not own any Wildfire Type 4 through Type 7 trucks.

In the 1960s and 1970s, CDF typically operated a fleet built on an International chassis; a medium duty, usually two-wheel drive truck (but with 4WD examples introduced late in the series), internally labeled a “Model 5”. The Model 5 moniker described the functionality of the vehicle more than the underlying truck, as the early Model 5 used an IH “LoadStar” cab-chassis as a basis, and later, CDF adopted the International “S-series” cab-chassis for their Model 5 rigs. Keep in mind that a wildfire “Type” fire truck is a universal firefighting standard specification, but the “Model” numbers referenced here are internal CDF-Cal Fire designations for their own equipment, and are not used elsewhere.

An early CDF Model 5 truck, based on the IH LoadStar cab and chassis. Late 1960s through the 1970s.

A newer version of the CDF Model 5, based on the International S-series cab and chassis, 1970s through the 1980s. In the 1960s, the CDF began to standardize its fleet around the IH/International trucks.

In 1990, the “Model 14” and “Model 15” trucks were placed into service, using the International “4000 Series” cab-chassis. The Model 14 was four wheel drive and the Model 15 was rear wheel drive. Many of these Model 14 and Model 15 trucks remain in service today, though they are being retired as age, mileage, and condition dictate. They are auctioned to qualified local fire departments at an $8,000 starting bid. They are typically roughly 22 years old, with about 225,000 miles on them, plus or minus. The “4” as a last digit in the Cal Fire model number indicates 4WD, and an internal model number ending in “5” denotes two-wheel-drive. Most Cal Fire Type 3 trucks are the 4WD variant, Models 14 and 34.

A Cal Fire Model 14 fire truck, still in service in 2020. These are currently being phased out of the fleet. A big evolutionary step for the Model 14 was to seat four personnel inside the vehicle, instead of hanging on along the outside or sitting in the open air.

Finally, in recent years, the “Model 34” and “Model 35” units have been employed. Those noting the CDF-Cal Fire “model” patterns might ask “what happened to the Models 24 and 25?” A few prototypes of each were built, and remain in the fleet today, but they were never widely adopted. The 24 and 25 incorporated ladders and foam firefighting capabilities, in order to more effectively fight structure fires. The desired specifications of the ideal CDF-Cal Fire vehicle moved away from an additional capacity for fighting structure fires. The Models 34 and 35, configured more towards strictly fighting open wildfires, were put into wide production instead.

The Model 24 (the Model 25 is similar). These trucks were specifically designed to fight both brush fires and structure fires along the wilderness interface. They incorporated ladders and foam firefighting capabilities. Between the two models, five were built and are still part of the Cal Fire fleet.

Cal Fire owns between 350 and 400 Wildfire Type 3 trucks at any given time. The size of the fleet fluctuates slightly as trucks are added, retired, and are occasionally destroyed in accidents or fire “burnovers”. Most of the Type 3 trucks are the Navistar-based Model 34. These trucks are stationed in just under 250 Cal Fire fire stations across large portions of the state. As one drives though the California back country, one will see numerous fire stations along the highways. These fire stations typically alternate between local fire districts and Cal Fire, and U.S. Forest Service fire stations will appear where the national forests are driven through. The USFS stations typically have the changeable “fire danger” sign out front, designating the current local fire danger anywhere from “low” to “moderate” to “very high”. Additionally, if the station doors are open or the trucks are outside, they are usually painted the distinctive Forest Service green, instead of red.

The size of the Cal Fire truck fleet fluctuates slightly, as new trucks are added and old ones are retired. Sometimes a truck doesn’t make it back from the fire. No injuries were suffered in a “burnover” of this Cal Fire truck.

The Model 34 truck has a GVWR of 35,000 lb, a wheelbase of 175” or 180”, a Navistar cab and chassis, and either a Navistar or Cummins Diesel engine. The trucks have automatic transmissions, and interior seating for five. A big evolutionary step in wildfire fire trucks was introduced to CDF-Cal Fire, when multiple rows of interior seating were introduced with the Models 14 and 15. The Model 34 expanded the interior seating from four to five.

While the cab and chassis have been sourced from IH/International/Navistar for decades, the rest of the truck has been built to a specific set of functional specifications, by a variety of smaller well-established specialty fire apparatus manufacturers. Each truck is slightly differently configured in its details from the next, especially across the different builders. One important aspect of the recent designs is to add rollover protection, and stronger defense against falling trees or heavy debris. The typical price for a Model 34 truck is about $400,000 these days. They are fitted out and delivered to Cal Fire one-by-one and two-by-two. These are still somewhat custom vehicles, not mass-produced, at least other than the cab and chassis.

Besides the Type 3 trucks, Cal Fire owns about 60 dozers, mostly Cat D5 and D6 variants. Smaller than the larger, later Cat offerings, they have also been mostly fitted with enclosed cabs and substantial rollover protection. Cal Fire buys them new, and sometimes used, as equipment becomes available. The dozers usually keep their original yellow paint jobs, with added “Cal Fire” logos. The opportunistic acquisition process gives the Cal Fire dozer fleet a hodgepodge of Cat and Deere dozers, beyond the primarily Cat D5’s and D6’s.

Cal Fire owns about 60 dozers, used to build firebreaks. Mostly Cats, with a few Deeres.

Cal Fire has its own rigs with which to move their dozers to the fire sites, of various manufacturers and specifications. This tractor is a Mack.

Cal Fire owns a number of what they call “Emergency Crew Transport” (“ECT”) trucks, with capacity for up to 17 personnel and their gear. These are typically used to rapidly deliver work crews to the fire site (and to occasionally rapidly evacuate them).

A CDF-Cal Fire “Emergency Crew Transport” truck. In this case, the lead unit is built on an older model Navistar “4000 Series” platform, while the crew truck behind it is of a newer series.

Cal Fire also owns and uses “Mobile Kitchen Unit” trailers and “Mobile Communications Center” trucks, for deployment at major, long-term fire sites. These are painted white with red trim, to differentiate them from the red-painted fire trucks and crew transports.

A Cal Fire “Mobile Communications Center” truck, painted white, to differentiate it from the rest of the Cal Fire fleet.

Local fire protection districts employ a variety of fire apparatus and specifications, but the U.S. Forest Service has a more streamlined fleet as well. The USFS Type 3 truck is also typically a Navistar rig, and similar to the Cal Fire Model 34, though the USFS trucks are painted green with white trim. The USFS internal designation for their Types 3, 4, and 6 trucks are a three-digit affair. The first digit is a “3”, “4”, or “6”, designating the Type. The second digit is either a “2” or a “4”, indicating two-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive. The third digit is the first digit of the truck’s water tank capacity. The USFS Type 3 truck can have a water tank of 600 gallons, and is usually four-wheel-drive. So instead of a Cal Fire “Model 34”, it is a Forest Service “Model 346”.

A U.S Forest Service Type 3 fire truck, with similar specifications to the Cal Fire Model 34. This is the standard wildfire fire truck for the USFS.

The Forest Service and Cal Fire will fight fires side-by-side, and coordinate, when the fire overlaps or is close to both National Forest land and other areas. Similarity in equipment specifications, and shared technology and standards, allow for a mostly seamless cooperative firefighting effort, when it is called for.

The U.S. Forest Service has its own fleet of crew trucks, painted the distinctive USFS green.

The Forest Service also has a fleet of water tender trucks, designed for delivering larger quantities of water to the field. Cal Fire has no similar vehicles in its fleet, though many local California fire protection districts have water tender trucks in their fire apparatus rosters.

This completes the overview of Cal Fire’s vehicle assets, along with selected Forest Service vehicles that work alongside Cal Fire in combined firefighting operations. Part 2 will cover Cal Fire’s aircraft and helicopters. These not only add to the firefighting capacity of Cal Fire, but they serve as airborne observation posts, and they allow a larger variety of fire suppression strategies. The air fleet “builds out” Cal Fire’s capabilities, gives Cal Fire an “in-house” firefighting capacity unmatched in most places, and an array of equipment that is ideally suited to California’s unusual firefighting needs.