Home Fire News Cal Fire investigating ‘private firefighters,’ may have set illegal backfires

Cal Fire investigating ‘private firefighters,’ may have set illegal backfires

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Rosalio Ahumada

The Sacramento Bee

Cal Fire is investigating reports of unauthorized backfires lit by “private firefighters” to protect property from the Glass Fire, which has burned more than 67,000 acres and destroyed 642 homes in Sonoma and Napa counties.

Authorities received reports of unauthorized backfires last weekend, said Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire.

McLean said the Cal Fire investigation is ongoing, and there was nothing conclusive yet to report.

An ABC 7-published video, the Bay Area TV news affiliate says, shows “private firefighters” detained by the California Highway Patrol and Cal Fire on Oct. 2. ABC 7 reported the “private firefighters” were hired by Napa Valley wineries and are suspected of setting illegal backfires.

McLean said he has seen video published by ABC 7, and he couldn’t tell what was happening in the video. McLean said he is not been told of anyone who was detained.

The Cal Fire spokesman declined to provide specific details about the recent reports of unauthorized backfires, because he said he did not want to jeopardize the investigation. But McLean did speak in general about the dangers involved with unauthorized backfires.

Lighting backfires is common tool as firefighters try to slow or stop flames. Backfires are often set along the inner edge of a fire line to consume vegetation, commonly referred to as “fuel,” that’s in the path of a wildfire. Backfires also can be used to change the direction of a blaze.

McLean said careful planning and preparation is done before setting a backfire, which involves determining how the backfire can be most effective, how big the backfire can be and what are the current and forecast weather conditions.

Planning also involves identifying the topography of the area and determining what vegetation the backfire will burn, such as grass, brush or trees that will burn differently, McLean said. And all that information needs to be shared with other firefighters on the ground.

“We’re all working together, we’re on the same page,” McLean told The Sacramento Bee Friday. “It’s accountability and communication.”

Without all the careful planning and communication, McLean said unauthorized backfires are volatile and can endanger firefighters on the ground who have been tasked to corral these fast-moving blazes.

“People will die,” McLean said of unauthorized backfires. “How are you going to escape a backfire that you don’t know about?”

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