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Vandenberg Hot Shots, augmentees ‘blazing trails’

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Members of the Vandenberg Hot Shots arrive home after fighting wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming Thursday, July 12, 2012. Wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming burned 29,168 acres total and destroyed nearly 350 houses in Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo/Michael Peterson)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Members of the Vandenberg Hot Shots arrive home after fighting wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming Thursday, July 12, 2012. Wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming burned 29,168 acres total and destroyed nearly 350 houses in Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo/Michael Peterson)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A Vandenberg Hot Shots crew vehicle is doused by fire trucks as it arrives at the Pacific Coast Club here after returning from fighting wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming Thursday, July 12, 2012. Wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming burned 29,168 acres total and destroyed nearly 350 houses in Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A Vandenberg Hot Shots crew vehicle is doused by fire trucks as it arrives at the Pacific Coast Club here after returning from fighting wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming Thursday, July 12, 2012. Wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming burned 29,168 acres total and destroyed nearly 350 houses in Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A Vandenberg Hot Shots crew vehicle is doused by fire trucks as it arrives at the Pacific Coast Club here after returning from fighting wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming Thursday, July 12, 2012. Wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming burned 29,168 acres total and destroyed nearly 350 houses in Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A Vandenberg Hot Shots crew vehicle is doused by fire trucks as it arrives at the Pacific Coast Club here after returning from fighting wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming Thursday, July 12, 2012. Wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming burned 29,168 acres total and destroyed nearly 350 houses in Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- "The story of the United States Air Force is the story of the search for ... innovation," said former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen.

The Vandenberg Fire Department embodies the story of the Air Force through their innovative idea to augment the Vandenberg Hot Shot crew by utilizing existing federal agreements to continue their wildland firefighting mission.

"The wildland fires have always been a critical threat to Vandenberg - probably more than any type of incident except a natural disaster," said Mark Farias, Vandenberg Fire Chief. "For 31 years the Vandenberg Hot Shots have saved lives, property, homes and local businesses. There hasn't been a place or person that they haven't touched or affected. When more than half of the hot shots positions were cut in 2012 due to fiscal constraints; we were left with crew staffed way below the national standard. When you lose a critical resource like that, it's felt way beyond the base."

The Vandenberg Fire Department was left with the capability to keep seven hot shot positions when a fully staffed crew is 21 or more. The fire department realized that the United States Forest Service of Los Padres also needed a local hot shot crew and came up with a collaborative idea - combine forces and create one fully manned crew for both areas.

"We used our existing agreements to leverage 14 trained wild land fire fighters from the U.S. Forest Service Los Padres region," Farias said. "These 14 individuals will stay here for 30 days and then another 14 individuals will rotate in."

Not only does this create a fully-staffed Hot Shot crew for the base and local area, but it also increases the overall effectiveness of the firefighters.

"We immerse them in the unique fire situations that can occur on base - from rocket fuel sources to unexploded ordnances," said Jesse Hendricks, Vandenberg Hot Shot Crew superintendent. "Under our current mutual aid agreement, that crew could be called on to help us if there was an emergency on base and this way they're already familiar with us, our procedures and have the lay of the land at Vandenberg."

Having new firefighters in the crew also helps add to Vandenberg's existing crew's knowledge base.

"Every fire is different," Hendricks said. "We all have the same basic wildland fire fighting knowledge and common goals, but each person has their own expertise and experiences to bring to the crew. So this partnership helps us both grow."

Through this new augmentee program, the Vandenberg Fire Department was not only able to fill a need on the installation; they are able to better serve the local communities as well.

"From all indications, it's going to be an extremely busy fire season," Farias said. "This partnership certainly brings our two agencies closer than we ever have been before and allows us to add on a fully operational crew that neither agency had before. We are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be able to continue to aid California's Central Coast with the Department of Defense's premiere Hot Shot crew."