Photo: Ryan Cullom, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — For the firefighters of Northern California, Thursday was payback time.
Dozens of fire engines from more than a dozen Bay Area and Wine Country fire departments arrived in ritzy Bel-Air early Thursday to pitch in at the still-smoldering Skirball fire.
“We’re just repaying the favor,” said Sonoma Valley Fire Department engineer Bryan Carlson. “These guys helped us during our firestorm. Now it’s our turn. It’s what we all do.”
The names on the sides of the engines parked on Morago Drive at the roped-off entrance to one of Southern California’s toniest enclaves read like a Bay Area atlas. There were red trucks from Richmond, El Cerrito, Geyserville, Glen Ellen, Santa Rosa, Crockett, San Ramon and a half dozen others.
All waited in a long line, as vehicles in Los Angeles tend to do, to be dispatched to relieve the Los Angeles fire units that had been working overnight. Some crews hadn’t slept since Wednesday.
Most of the firefighters — the Bay Area ones as well as the Los Angeles ones — were munching breakfast burritos, a morning foodstuff of choice. They’d been handed out by volunteers who typically hand out breakfast burritos to tired firefighters who aren’t sure which mealtimes they’ve missed.
Mutual aid like theirs has been pouring in steadily from all over the state and the West — a welcome contrast, state officials say, to the slower response that came in the initial hours of the Wine Country fires. Fewer than half of the engines requested in the early hours of the Sonoma and Napa county blazes in October responded to the call.
This time, however, the functional end of fire season up north from the rains has made it easier to send crews south without fear of leaving local departments dangerously understaffed, officials said. That fortunate circumstance has firefighters on both ends of the state grateful.
After all, fighting fires and saving lives and property is what they say they are all about. Whether it’s in Santa Rosa or in Bel-Air.
“We’re going to go up in the hills, up there,” said Glen Ellen Fire Capt Jim Kracke, pointing at a white-columned palazzo of the eight-figure variety clinging to the hill above.
“We’re going to try and clean this thing up and put it to bed,” Kracke said. “Our main concern is the erratic winds.”
The erratic Santa Ana winds that stream into the Southland unrelentingly, like aspiring actors — the bad-guy kind — are every firefighter’s main concern. On Thursday morning in Los Angeles they were fairly calm but forecasters were expecting them to pick up and begin blowing embers, those chunks of sizzling debris that cause fires to metastasize.
Kracke said the Skirball fire “looked bad initially” but that Los Angeles crews seemed to have gotten the upper hand.
“It’s still a wait-and-see game,” Kracke said. “That’s the job.”
El Cerrito Fire Captain Joe Castrejan said he and his crew drove down all night on Interstate 5, stopping at a fast-food joint before crawling up the Grapevine like most every other motorist.
The southbound fire trucks could have turned on their red lights and sirens to make better time, but Carlson said fire trucks don’t usually do that on freeways.
“It can cause confusion, and there’s already confusion,” he said.