Firefighters rack up experience in SoCal

San Francisco and San Mateo County firefighters were fully represented during the Southern California wildfires last week, which they said doubled as training for a possible Bay Area catastrophe.

Three strike teams were sent from San Francisco and northern and southern San Mateo County. The 12- and 24-hour shifts may have been brutal, but the experience they earned was invaluable, they said.</p>

San Bruno Battalion Chief Joe Telles and San Mateo Battalion Chief Mike Borean headed south with engines and firefighters from four northern Peninsula departments and CalFire, the state fire-prevention group. Their crew saved at least eight homes last week and received handshakes and hugs from President Bush.

The chances of encountering a wildfire of the magnitude seen in Southern California in this area are slim, they said, but there are “plenty of other nasty things” local departments deal with, such as rescue missions, earthquakes and hazardous materials.

Leading troops through such a chaotic situation should help during the next emergency, they said. They also realized forming a plan to combat the “big picture” was actually a better method to the madness than instinctively rushing into each individual area.

Ricky Yee and 21 other San Francisco firefighters’ weeklong trip to San Diego ended Saturday night after battling the Ranch and Witch fires.

There may not be any wildfires in The City anytime soon, he said, but he and other nearby departments will deploy to raging fires in areas such as Marin County and the Oakland hills. Yee, who spent the week driving firetrucks and running the pumps, said the trip was a giant experience builder for a potential fire in those areas that “is bound to happen.”

San Mateo Battalion Chief John Healy, whose team returned home from San Bernardino on Sunday, said firefighters learned the importance of calling for extra manpower and resources as soon as possible. Furthermore, the tremendous police presence allowed firefighters to focus solely on their job and not other aspects such as resident control, he said.

Men and women in yellow suits were not the only local teams sent south for emergency response last week.

Dave Lipin, of San Carlos, was the mission commander for the California Medical Assistance Team, formed statewide after Hurricane Katrina. In their first ever mission, Lipin led a team of doctors, nurses and paramedics from Menlo Park and helped the Red Cross and other agencies wherever they could.

“We thought we would just show up and the county would say, ‘We need you here and there’ and we could just work,” Lipin said. “Now we know to prepare better for the fog of war, right after the disaster, where there is a lot of misinformation.”

mrosenberg@examiner.com

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