Vandenberg firefighters, dozer team help battle local inferno

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shane M. Phipps
  • 30th Space Wing Public Affairs

Vandenberg firefighters, along with members of Vandenberg’s unique heavy equipment operators’ fire dozer team, recently helped battle a potentially catastrophic, local wildfire.

Dubbed the Sherpa Fire, the large inferno blazed through an area near Santa Barbara, as the Vandenberg fire department received the initial call to assist other departments in the area around 9 p.m. on June 15.  

“The Vandenberg fire department has an outstanding relationship with outside fire agencies,” said Robert Raffel, 30th Civil Engineer Squadron fire captain. “For the Sherpa Fire, we were part of a Type III Engine Strike Team that included Santa Barbara, Lompoc, Santa Maria and Carpentaria city fire departments. We got the call around 9 p.m. It ended up being 7, 474 acres – and was located 11 miles north of Goleta, Camino and Cielo Ridges.”

In addition to the base providing firefighter support, a team of specialized heavy equipment operators, tasked with using dozers to create fire breaks, also quickly responded to the blaze.

“Our primary purpose is to create a dozer line, known as a fire break or fuel break to aid in stopping, or slowing the fire’s rate of spread. Also, it is our responsibility to improve and create access roads for Type III fire engines, also known as brush trucks, so that they can gain access to the fire, as well as build and improve safety zones that can accommodate all personnel and equipment on the fire line.”

Joining the fight with departments from all around the local area, Vandenberg’s Engine 13 played a vital role in containing the blaze.

“Vandenberg’s Engine 13 was on the initial attack of the fire,” said Raffel. “This is the most intense and challenging part of the fire. Engine 13’s fire assignment was structure protection, focusing on two structures, employing suppression tactics to ensure those structures were not threatened, or affected. Engine 13 also supported holding and preventing the fire from jumping Highway 101. Our Vandenberg fire department provides invaluable training to all our firefighters that allows us to safely respond to all sorts of incidents, to include fires like the Sherpa Fire.”

Responding during the cover of darkness, the firefighters and dozer team faced uniquely dangerous obstacles not always present during such scenario.

“In the past, after notification of dozer support – we would arrive on site during the daytime,” said Staff Sgt. Benjamin Dyer 30th CES pavements and heavy equipment journeyman and wildland fire dozer operator. “On this occasion, we arrived in the evening and began working as soon as boots touched the ground, into and through the night. Working a night shift cutting fire breaks made this unique on our part as a team having to deal with low visibility due to smoke, dust, ash, hours of darkness, and a marine layer of fog. Also, this fire response was unique because we were cutting a direct dozer line, which means we were operating right on top of the fire’s edge.”

Operating in an area susceptible to wildland fires, mutual aid agreements between fire departments and other agencies, is crucial.

“We have outstanding relationships with fire agencies outside the gates,” said Raffel. “These mutual aid agreements not only provide benefits outside of Vandenberg, but also when we rely on those same agencies to assist with various types of emergencies on base, to include wildland fires. Our mutual aid agreements extend not only to wildland fires but also to Urban Search and Rescue, structural, highway responses and water rescue emergencies. While on the Sherpa Fire, our crews worked side by side with other agencies on the Strike Team. In fact, each engine on our strike team had a former Vandenberg firefighter on board.”

Along with Vandenberg’s Engine 13 playing a critical role in the fire’s containment, the dozer team was also placed in close proximity to the inferno – tasked with vital responsibilities.

“Our team was essential in creating a containment line, safety zones, and helicopter landing zones,” said Tech. Sgt. David Alfonso, 30th CES noncommissioned officer-in-charge of pavements and heavy equipment at the time of the fire. “We were responsible for direct fire line construction, which placed us adjacent to the extreme fire behavior, which our dozer was responsible for controlling and containing.”