Speaker at Barnegat Wildfire Safety Council Relates Wildfire Experiences in California

Feb 14, 2018
Courtesy of: Bill Brash

Bill Brash, a crew member for the New Jersey State Forest Fighting Service, was in California’s Napa Valley last October during the time of the historically massive wildfire. But he was not there to help fight the fire; rather he and his wife were vacationing at a relative’s time-share condo.

“At 10 p.m. Sunday, which was Oct. 8, it was a 200-acre fire,” said Brash. “By 10 a.m. the next Monday, it had spread to 27,000 acres.”

Brash was relating his experiences at the Feb. 9 quarterly meeting of the Barnegat Township Wildfire Safety Council.

“At 8:45 p.m. Monday, we had to evacuate,” he said.

Brash, who is president of the New Jersey Fire Safety Council, said when the wildfire finally abated following several weeks, it had scorched 245,000 acres, or the equivalent of New York City’s five boroughs. 

“It consisted of 21 separate fires,” he said. “It was the deadliest forest fire in Calfornia history, with 43 deaths.”

Brash said 4,500 homes were lost and 50,000 people were evacuated.

“At its peak, there were 11,000 firefighters involved, but I don’t know of any who were sent from New Jersey,” he said.“They also utilized 32 aircraft and 25 helicopters.”

A massive wildfire could have been expected, considering the climate conditions.

“Two of the past three years, the area experienced severe droughts,” said Brash. “There was no rain for 150 days prior to Oct. 8. Factor in humidity of around 10 percent and the powerful Santa Ana winds, and you have a recipe for disaster.”  

Brash said that Cal-Fire, the state’s forest fire agency, did not even try putting out the fire for the first three days.

“At that time, they were concerned about getting everybody out,” he said.

But complicating matters was the fact the raging wildfire was destroying communications systems, leaving people without cell phone service.

“The average age of people who died was 70,” Brash said. “To me, that means that the elderly and disabled could not get out in time. There was no pre-staging of fire fighting equipment, despite the extreme drought conditions. Better preparedness might have resulted in a reduction of  fatalities.”

Brash said he and his wife drove to San Francisco, where they stayed in a hotel.

“There were embers landing in San Francisco, and that’s about 75 miles away,” he said.

Communications problems at the onset of the fire are something Barnegat officials can relate to. Deputy Mayor Alfonso Cirulli, who is the township committee’s liaison to the wildfire safety council, was mayor when the Pinelands wildfire of May 15-16 ,2007 broke out. He recalled that he was receiving calls from concerned residents who had noticed burning embers landing on their properties.

Cirulli called David Breeden, who was township administrator at the time, and asked if he had heard of any fire. Cirulli said Breeden was not aware of anything, but it did not take long for town hall and police to learn the frightening truth – a major forest fire had the western areas of the township in its crosshairs.

“I was afraid that we were going to lose a lot of homes, and maybe some lives west of the Parkway,” he said. 

Police Lt. Jeff Ryan said authorities had not been notified of the fire in a timely manner, which made it very hectic in evacuating residents from the Pinewood Estates, Brighton at Barnegat, Horizons and Heritage Point communities.

“The left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing,” he said.  “But since the fire, communication has greatly improved. We now have a Facebook page and a Nixle alert system. We can get the word out a lot faster.” 

John Cowie, a member of the fire safety council and outreach coordinator for the state forest fire service, said that since the wildfire, Barnegat has been involved in preparation programs such as  “Ready, Set, Go,” which helps communities develop initiatives to halt the spread of forest fires. 

Cowie said that while the area won’t see conditions quite as extreme as California, people have to be prepared.

“It is a lot more humid here, but when the weather gets hot and we don’t get enough rain, a wildfire can start and spread very quickly,” he said. “We found that out in May 2007.” 

— Eric Englund

ericenglund@thesandpaper.net

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