Manhattan Beach firefighters battle Creek Fire in Sierras
An engine company from the Manhattan Beach Fire Department is part of the five-engine South Bay Strike Team helping fight the Creek Fire in the Sierra National Forest.
“Obviously this is an unprecedented wildland season,” said Dave Shenbaum, an MBFD paramedic and firefighter who is part of Creek Fire strike team. “Typically our season doesn’t start ‘til late October, when we get the Santa Ana winds and low humidity. But it seems that wildland and brush fires are becoming more and more year-round in California.”
Already, South Bay strike teams have been deployed three times, first for the Hughes Lake fire in Angeles National Forest in mid-August; then, on August 21, to the massive SCU Complex fires burning across seven counties in Northern California; and finally on September 7 to the Creek Fire. The strike teams are comprised of engines from El Segundo, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Torrance fire departments.
“The South Bay strike units are here to provide any assistance needed to support the incident objectives,” Shenbaum said. “These tasks can be anything from putting in progressive hose lays, supporting a backfire operation, structure defense, and, since many of our firefighters are paramedics, providing medical care to personnel on the fire line.”
Shenbaum said the scale of these fires has shocked even veteran firefighters.
“The SCU Complex was, at the time, the second largest fire in the history of California,” Shenbaum said. “Within a two week period, we had the top three fires in California history all burning at the same time. The SCU burned 396,000 acres.”
The MBFD engine crew at the SCU fire included Shenbaum and fellow firefighters Christian McArthur, James Stratton, and Chris Grafton. They were put to work within two hours of arriving in Alameda County and at one point worked almost two straight days.
“For one 48 hour stretch, the South Bay strike team got two hours rest,” Shenbaum said.
What rest looked like varied. Sometimes they slept in tents, sometimes they just caught a nap on the ground. “Sometimes you are sleeping in the dirt,” Shenbaum said.
“It’s such a large scale fire in such challenging terrain, which led firefighters to hike over 17 miles within a 36 hour period to assist with the firefighting effort,” he said.
It’s not just a hike, obviously. Firefighters are carrying hoses and large equipment packs.
“We carry a hose pack, we carry food and water, we carry special tools, and we carry fire shelters, in case we get overrun by fire and have to deploy our shelters for protection,” Shenbaum said.
They were at the SCU fire for 10 days.
“Then we came home. Most of the guys had to report back to our normal shifts the next day,” Shenbaum said. “They went right back to work. Then they had a couple days off. Then five days later, that same shift was dispatched to what we now call the Creek Fire, which is at 220,000 acres. This was the fire that started in the Mammoth Pools area, and they evacuated by helicopter 150 people with injuries. We’ve been at this fire since the night of the 7th.”
MBFD has also, separately, sent fireline paramedics to other fires across the state — including James Stratton, Pete Heck, Beau Reynolds, and Chris Grafton. Grafton is currently at Big Sur and Reynolds at the Bobcat Fire, where he is both serving as a paramedic and heavy equipment boss.
“Chris Grafton and James Stratton spent three days at home for the month of August,” Shenbaum said. “And then, in early September, Chris got banged out again to the Big Sur fire. He submitted for 14 days and he just got added another seven days, so he’s committed to that incident for 21 days.”
MBFD Interim Chief Wolfgang Knabe has two sons fighting the wildfires, one in Big Sur and another near Oroville.
The MBFD engine company part of the South Bay strike team at the Creek Fire, which will likely be deployed until September 21, includes Shenbaum, McBride, and fellow firefighters Mike Murrey and Pete Heck.
“Some of these guys, ironically, have been out for two weeks as a fireline medics, came home and happened to be working the fire engine that goes on the strike team and then were pushed out again for another two weeks,” Shenbaum said.
They’ve been working 24 hours on, 24 hours off.
“It’s been one of the most uniquely challenging assignments that I have seen,” said McBride, who is also serving as the apparatus operator for the MBFD crew.
One balm has been that CalFire has put firefighters up in hotels for some of their days off. Shenbaum said the things you take for granted — a shower and a bed — feel like the richest luxuries when resting from the wildfires. “You take the small things for granted,” he said.
The strike team deployments have stretched MBFD thin. Smaller departments are limited in how many firefighters they deploy to fight wildfires, but even so, it’s required everyone department-wide to pick up work for their colleagues at the fires. The strike team costs are paid for by the state, Shenbaum noted. What makes the grueling work doable, he said, is the comradery and shared purpose among the firefighters.
“We have to rely on each other, lift each other up when we’re down, and support each other,” Shenbaum said.
What’s hard to grasp is that the wildfire season has just begun.
“This is going to be an extraordinary fire season for the West Coast,” Shenbaum said. “It has started earlier than normal and all indications are that it will last longer than normal.”
Shenbaum said the most striking aspects of the work are the “moonscapes” left behind by the fires and the gratitude expressed by the communities the firefighters are trying to protect.
“There’s an outpouring of support of firefighters and law enforcement efforts,” he said.”The community could not be more supportive of our efforts, and we greatly appreciate it. With these two week assignments, it helps with morale.”
Mayor Richard Montgomery said that back home, folks are likewise thankful for what their firefighters are doing.
“We appreciate all of the sacrifices our firefighters are making on behalf of those communities in need,” Montgomery. “Not just working in a dangerous environment but away from your family as well. Thank you, and God bless our Manhattan Beach Fire Department.”
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