Citizen firefighters combat blazes in California's 'forgotten canyon'

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California firefighterImage source, Getty Images

For several consecutive years, fires have devastated the Californian coast, and the fire service is under increasing pressure with fewer resources. One former firefighter is setting up his own fire crew, but is that the right approach?

Eric Beninger, who lives in Palo Colorado Canyon in Big Sur, saw many of his neighbours' homes destroyed by the 2016 Soberanes fire, one of the most expensive wildfires in US history.

The 2017 wildfire season was one of the worst in the state's history, with more than 9,000 fires burning 1.2 million acres (500,000 hectares). Last year, the fire that hit Paradise alone killed 86 people.

After witnessing the devastation of his own community, Mr Beninger decided to recruit his neighbours and train up an independent fire team to be on standby for future fires.

"When the fire crews finally arrived, they had to decide which houses to just let burn," he says. "Everything was on fire."

The Soberanes fire, which burnt for three months, destroyed 57 homes and cost around $260m (£200m) to suppress. Of the 27 homes along Mr Beninger's road, only eight survived.

The US Forest Service's response was subsequently criticised for its handling of the fire. Even help from the region's volunteer service was not enough to stop the flames.

"After the fire started, the neighbours mostly fled," Mr Beninger recalled. "A few of us stayed behind to protect our homes, because we knew we weren't going to get help. We risked our lives to be here, not knowing what the fire would do.

"Where we live is difficult to reach, it's secluded. And we were forgotten about."

The fire chief of the Mid Coast Fire Brigade, the volunteer fire service that tackled the blaze, said they worked hard to protect the residents and their homes in the days that the fire burned.

"The brigade worked relentlessly with little food or sleep during the first seven days of the fire," says Cheryl Goetz.

"These are not just people in a community - to us they are neighbours, friends, co-workers and family."

There will never be enough resources to get out in front of and stop these types of fires as they are spreading at rapid rates, says Ms Goetz.

"Despite our best efforts, even as we were advised of a person trapped by the fire, the intensity of the fire and the numerous trees falling forced us out of the area."

Image source, NASA/ Getty
Image caption,
The Soberanes fire seen from space

Mr Beninger is a carpenter, but used to be a firefighter with the US Forest Service in one of the hotshot crews - teams known as America's "elite" firefighters due to the danger of their work.

He says he and two friends helped save three homes from burning - by using water bottles from the Red Cross.

"We had a shovel - no chainsaws though, mine had burnt in the fire. We were just this tiny makeshift fire brigade in a pick-up truck with some water bottles."

That's where the idea began, said Mr Beninger, who soon after heard about a small fire truck for sale in nearby Carmel Valley. The owner gave it to him for half the price, and now it's up to him to restore it and build a team.

The fire truck is built around a 1973 Dodge Power Wagon, and has a four wheel drive, meaning it can access the canyon's almost-impassable dirt roads.

Image caption,
The 1973 Dodge Power Wagon fire truck, nicknamed Scarlett.

"At the moment we don't have a big crew, but we're speaking with another six neighbours and we're going to do what we can. We're going to give everybody basic fire training."

Mr Beninger is planning barbecues, calendars - "men and women" he noted - and "whatever it takes" to drum up the $10,000 needed to get started.

"The best part is making our community tighter. Having the truck is one thing, but knowing how to use it and bringing everybody closer is more important. I don't know if we're going to be able to save any homes, but we're going to try."

Ms Goetz advises people should be careful about setting up their own firefighting teams as her volunteers are fully trained.

It's better if householders take steps to protect their homes, she says:

- Clearing vegetation around their homes - 100ft minimum

- Ensure you have access to a water source that will not be compromised by loss of electricity

- Clearly mark that water source for all incoming firefighting equipment

- Clearly address your property so firefighting resources know and understand there's a home up that dirt road

Image caption,
Beninger predicts more devastating wildfires are coming to California

More on California wildfires

Media caption,

Rebuilding Paradise: 'Our town is gone'

An August 2018 assessment found the state could see a 77% increase in the average area burned by wildfires in 2100.

A Cal Fire report, published in March 2019, noted as many as 15 million acres of California forests are in "poor health", needing work to boost fire resiliency.

Experts have warned there is now no longer a "typical" California wildfire season, and that the risk may be year-round.

"If the community doesn't do something to protect itself, who will?" added Mr Beninger.

"I think it's going to be a great addition to the neighbourhood, it will bring people back together. We were devastated by that fire; families fled, there used to be lots of children here but now there aren't.

"The fire could've been handled within days, but there just weren't the resources. We're going to take care of our own."

Image caption,
The truck's number plate lists it as a "historical vehicle"

The truck's already got a nickname - Scarlett - which Mr Beninger wants on the uniforms.

"They won't be anything too fancy, but we might have some scarlet on there, maybe some redwoods , ocean and the mountains. But we'll have to change the writing on the side of the truck."

After a few moments he added, with a chuckle: "Maybe we could call it the forgotten canyon fire department?"

UPDATE: This story was first published on 9 April, then re-published on 24 April with statements from the Mid Coast Fire Brigade