"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is E. Matt Gil, Assistant Los Angeles County Fire Chief for the Santa Clarita Valley and surrounding communities. The following interview was conducted Thursday. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: You're new to the assistant chief position, but you're not new to the Fire Department, are you?
Gil: No, I've been with the Fire Department 31 years.
Signal: You replaced Larry Hambleton when was that?
Gil: In October. After the fires, Larry was feeling a little ill, went off and said, "It's time to go."
Signal: How many assistant fire chiefs are there?
Gil: In the Los Angeles County Fire Department, there are 13 assistant fire chiefs.
Signal: You oversee what area?
Gil: Normally the fire chiefs oversee cities, a certain amount of cities, anywhere from three to five cities.
Signal: So you are the Santa Clarita Fire Chief?
Signal: Along with a couple other cities, right?
Gil: Well, La CaŅada-Flintridge and unincorporated areas like La Crescenta and Castaic and Stevenson Ranch.
Signal: What are the boundaries of your territory?
Gil: I cover everything north of Pasadena to Chatsworth to Acton to Gorman. It's one of the largest jurisdictions in the county.
Signal: We had some pretty intense fire activity in Santa Clarita a few weeks ago in Placerita and Sand canyons.
Gil: Oh yes we did, very challenging.
Signal: I understand it was started by a hawk.
Gil: The Foothill Incident here that started at the 14 and I-5 connector there was a hawk that made a connection between the wires and the poles and fell into the dry grass area flashy fields and the fire took off from that point.
Signal: A lot of people have asked, how do you know the hawk started it, and it wasn't just another casualty?
Gil: They don't seem to run after they get electrocuted. This particular one and we have had several other ones up in Gorman they've dropped, and it's like a deep-fried turkey.
Signal: Some of our environmental activists have said it looked like you just let it burn through Elsmere and Whitney canyons. What's your answer?
Gil: You know, (you) have to understand the fire triangle: We have fuel, we have heat, and we have oxygen. Well, in this fire, we had all three that were working in conjunction with each other. The flashy fuel that carried the fire quickly, and with air force, air attack in there, a lot of times we can challenge those grass fires and capture them. But we had topography that was against those steep slopes, but then the wind was the other component that assists it under the normal wind conditions. In the afternoon at that time we have a good influence coming off the San Fernando Valley, which drove the fire up through Elsmere Canyon. Once it topped up to the ridges, the normal prevailing wind comes down canyon right into the 14 and the San Fernando Road area. It went it up to the top, came down to the bottom, and ended up with a good six-mile front of fire.
Signal: Are the winds predictable? Do they always kick up at 1 p.m.?
Gil: During this type of season in July, and August and September, it is (predictable). Normally, during the morning hours, the Earth starts to warm. So we'll have these up-canyon drafts. During the course of the morning and the warming of the afternoon, they increase, and in the evening, we call it when the area goes into transition 6 o'clock, 7 o'clock, 8 o'clock the Earth starts to cool and the winds reverse and they come down canyon.
Signal: A lot of different agencies help fight a fire like this. Under what circumstances do you call in other agencies?
Gil: It depends on the amount of threat, and with the Foothill Fire, we had it running at such a rapid rate that we well, strategically, we build a box. And then we say, we want to be able to keep the fire within these parameters of the box. (With the) Foothill Fire, the north end of our box was Placerita Canyon, and the east end was Camp 9, which (is at) the Santa Clara Divide, and the 14 freeway to the west and I-5 at the bottom.
Well, this was ramping up so fast that the local jurisdiction and surrounding L.A. County Fire Department engine companies, we weren't going to have enough resources to herd this fire. And just like all through Southern California, we're able to pull the trigger, go in and ask for mutual aid, which allows all these other agencies to come into play with us and to extinguish this fire.
Signal: So at the end of the day, some accountant does all the math and figures out how much Los Angeles County owes everybody else?
Gil: It's a science. As incident commanders, we have to be very responsible in tracking these resources, and as they arrive into the incident we have what we call a check-in area where they come in and actually check, get their safety briefing, get their assignment, and move on. That gets back to the incident commander (who), during the course of the fire, is tracking these resources and watching the county pocketbook at the same time.
Signal: When a fire like this crosses jurisdictional boundaries between the city of Santa Clarita and the unincorporated county, does someone figure out how much the city and county must pay?
Gil: That process is called cash apportionment, and in the last three fires that we had back to back, we went through cash apportionment with all three fires. The Foothill Fire here in Santa Clarita started in an SRA, which is a State Responsibility Area. It's state land. Then it extended into the (Angeles) National Forest; then it extended into the city's jurisdiction. And so each agency takes a piece of that, whatever resources were used within that jurisdiction, and they share that cost.
Signal: There was some confusion about the evacuation orders in Placerita Canyon, Sand Canyon, Fair Oaks Ranch. Placerita went back and forth between voluntary and mandatory evacuations. Who makes the decision to put an area under mandatory evacuation order?
Gil: The incident commander. And the incident commander at the initial attack was myself.
You make that assessment on the condition of the fire. (At) the onset of the fire, to us (it) didn't appear that the fire was going to make much headway. We were going to be able to make a stop at Placerita Canyon. So as a precautionary measure, we put Placerita Canyon and Sand Canyon under voluntary evacuation because the threat was very minimal.
Now, the second day, when we felt that we were herding the fire and maintaining a certain degree of control, the afternoon (winds) came up which we knew in our morning briefing, where all the units are briefed on the fire condition (and) fire behavior we knew we were going to get into a transition with a good up-canyon wind, but we felt that we had good control lines and that we would be able to manage that, along with the road and fixed-wing resources and the ground troops. The fire did just not want to behave that day. It ended up jumping the line and coming down into the canyon.
If you look at Placerita Canyon, you can see that the fuel is very old there, at least 30 (years old) and older in there. Plus, the condition of the fuel beds would provide erratic type of fire behavior. Once it jumped that line and started coming down canyon, we made the call to do a mandatory evacuation to get the citizens out there, because we knew that it was going to be erratic. We didn't know what direction it was going to go, but yet we knew that it was going to still continue across Placerita and make its way to the 14 freeway because of other fire behavior that we see there, and the fire we had six years ago, and it behaved the same.
But on the south side of Placerita Canyon, we had really old, old fuel that was going to really contribute to a lot of heat, a lot of 100- to 200-foot flame licks, which provided a quarter of mile to a mile of spotting ahead of the fires.
Signal: In other words, an ember would carry a quarter mile or more and start a new fire?
Gil: Once that fire established the characteristics of spot fires it'll start as a little quarter-acre, and as it builds, and it builds energy, it starts creating its own climate and starts creating even more wind, which then accelerates the main body of fire to catch up with it.
When that happens, then that's when we need to be the dynamics of fighting fire all changes. We go into a defensive mode, where we are not able to control the perimeter of the fire, so we have to protect everything that is in the line of fire, which are the homes. In order to do that in a safe manner, we require mandatory evacuation so we can move with the fire.
Signal: Many people didn't leave their homes when they were under mandatory evacuation. What does mandatory mean? Can you go in and tell someone to get out?
Gil: Well, sometimes we say it in that tone. But as far as California law written, this is a joint cooperation with the citizens, along with public safety, through our education and brush clearance, and also (at) community events we talk about this. Especially here in Santa Clarita with the earthquake preparedness that we have, most of the folks are pretty cooperative, and they understand what the threat is. I think they understand that a lot of times, they need to move so the fire guys can get in and take care of business.
That's the main thing the safety for the public and safety for people to be able to move in these dynamics. As far as the mandatory, we call it mandatory, but by state law a resident can stay in his home. We cannot physically remove that individual unless he's not of his own self mind, but other than that we cannot move him.
Signal: You can't go to sheriffs and have them take him out?
Gil: Well, no, the sheriffs can't manhandle him and take him out. So what we do with those types of folks and there's different some residents have different needs. They are concerned about their animals and their pets, and some residents have very good, defensible spaces. They've done a lot of work into their homes and they say, "You know what? My house is going to stand." And a lot of them do. In this particular fire, there were quite a few of them who had a good, defensible space, and they would be able to shelter in place.
Signal: In general, what kind of problems do you encounter when people won't leave?
Gil: Folks (who) do not evacuate many times they are standing on the curb with their children and watching the fire engines come down. Another hazard that people don't realize is that the smoke might fall right to the ground and we'll lose all visibility. So as we are trying to move fire apparatus and fire equipment to houses and following the fire and staying in front of the fire and saving these homes, (fire engines) might be coming down and not seeing a little child or a little citizen. It's a tragedy...
Signal: Did you have problems with people creating a bottleneck on the road?
Gil: Well, we had problems with people trying to get back in once. They were reasonable residents and went out on the mandatory (evacuation order) but wanted to come back mainly for their animals you know, cats and dogs and horses. In conjunction with Animal Control they were part of the incident in these types of incidents, we get together what they call a unified command. We had the (U.S. Forest Service) and the (California Department of Forestry), and the L.A. County Fire Department with other agencies, Animal Control, the Sheriff's Department and other groups that are volunteers. Through their efforts, we coordinate with them to try to address all of those issues.
They were moving horses out real well early, and that's when we want to get people out when they can be calm and remember to take their valuables and heirlooms and all; that they didn't leave the cat back at the house; and secure their homes so no one can gain entry into them. Under those conditions, we can do that. When we call for a voluntary evacuation, the folks should start getting prepared for that, because if the fire is coming in their direction, they can look at the smoke and say, "You know, it may bear down on us." When we do call for a mandatory, they should know that things have changed the dynamics of this fire have changed and most of them are prepared with their cars loaded and they are ready to go out in an organized fashion.
Signal: Is it correct that this fire season is particularly bad?
Gil: Oh, yes. Here it's July, and we're burning right now in July as we should be burning in late August, September and October. The fuel moistures, which have dropped because of the six-year drought that we've been experiencing the fuel moisture content (is) how much fuel moisture is left in (a) plant. And right now it is in the same existence that we normally experience in September and October.
Signal: What should canyon residents be doing to protect themselves?
Gil: Well, No. 1, if they are in that environment, then they are expected by the Fire Department to do brush clearance. That's not the time that you should go out there and just try to clear everything. All through the course of the year, you should try to increase the clearance around your home and use the proper vegetation.
At the Los Angeles County Fire Department we have a Forestry Division that (people) can contact here their local fire station. We can counsel them on the types of fuels to plant. We're not saying don't plant trees, but plant the right ones, and create that buffer zone (so that) if a wildland fire does come through, even (during) Santa Ana wind conditions we call those wind-driven fires that they would be protected, and the main thing, from embers, because the fire could be a mile away and start dropping ashes and starting getting the grass, and then all your native, ornamental vegetation can catch fire.
Signal: Some people credited iceplant for buffering homes from flames in Fair Oak Ranch. Anything to that?
Gil: Well, new iceplant is a pretty good barrier. Once the iceplant becomes five (or) six years old (or) older, there's a lot of dead in there. But iceplant doesn't create the energy, the BTUs, that other native vegetation does. But it does burn. It can carry fire from one point to another point.
But that particular project has new construction tile roofs, stucco and good clearance, and in a couple of areas that were pretty tight to some of the vegetation, the block walls really helped to reduce the exposure to those structures.
Signal: Are there still a lot of wood-shingled houses in fire-prone areas?
Gil: The city is doing pretty good. There are a little pockets in the city of Santa Clarita they still exist, but for the most part, the folks have been switching out when they need a new roof, and putting on a copper roof or tile roof.
Signal: What's the personnel situation? Sheriff Lee Baca is proposing a half-cent sales tax increase in November for new officers; is the Fire Department grossly understaffed as well?
Gil: Well, we'd like to have more staffing. We do have three-man companies and four-man trucks, and it would be nice to get back to four-man engine companies, but it bears a heavy cost.
Signal: By four-man engine company, you mean you've got three persons on a truck where you should have four?
Gil: We'd like to have four. In some areas, depending on the fire activity and also the threat or the demand for safety for fire personnel and some of the jurisdictions, we do have a four-man company, but for the most part we do have three-man engine companies.
Signal: Would the half-cent sales tax proposal help you?
Gil: Not quite sure. It's still being written and still being discussed at the Board (of Supervisors) level, and if anything, we would like to attach to it. But we'll see with time. (We) wonder how that will come out.
Signal: Are we going to see some new fire stations in Santa Clarita?
Gil: We have slated five new stations within the Santa Clarita city boundary.
Signal: In what time frame?
Gil: Hopefully within in the next six years. We are looking at one (per) year. It's quite a task to get a station up. Normally it takes us anywhere from a year and a half to two years to get a fire station spooled up and operational. ... We have Fire Station 104 the city was gracious to lease us the property right above Home Depot next to the Sports Complex up there, and that will be our temporary station, and bring that in and build a barn for an engine, and we have these trailers.
As we are looking for another spot the designated spot was right across the street from Soledad Canyon from that location, but we're looking to come up the hill a little further to kind of service the growth area of the back side. And four other ones are up and coming. They are moving fast. Property in Santa Clarita is quite expensive, so that's a challenge.
Signal: Is there anything you wanted to address that we haven't hit?
Gil: You have great guys out here. I've got to say that for the firemen. Over 60 percent of the firemen live here in the community, so they are very attached. We are always working to do it better as a Fire Department, and we are all risks we have Swift Water Urban Search and Rescue, Hazmat, and we are putting another truck company on the east side of the city. We'll have two ladder trucks. So we're gaining on it, and some folks wish it would come further, but you know, we're a government agency, and we have to jump through the hoops like anyone else.
Signal: If you had one big wish, what could the city or the residents do to help you guys?
Gil: I think being supportive, as they are, in our endeavor to provide the life safety that we do as our organization, and to stop by the station and to get to know their local firemen, because they are great guys.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.