By Conor Vilines/El Inde
April and May are traditionally the start of fire season. Sonoita-area residents have seen years when the blazes begin this time of year and continue for months until the monsoon season.
In normal years, as fire season approaches, the Sonoita Elgin Fire District warms up with a pre-fire season training regiment. All members of the department take an eight-hour refresher course, clean up debris which could fuel a fire, selectively burn sacaton grasses, and educate residents about how to protect themselves.
This year, the district had to find new ways to get ready. “Because of cautions about spreading coronavirus, firefighting this season is going to look different than anything we’ve ever seen before,” said Sonoita-Elgin Fire Chief Joseph DeWolf.
Last year’s first big fire began in April, and DeWolf said on April 28 that his fire district was ready for this season. Normally, preparations start with the refresher course. Not unlike military boot camp candidates, members of the district — from the chief all the way down to entry-level volunteers — must walk three miles while carrying 45-pound packs in under 45 minutes. This march is followed by four hours of classroom time, where participants review anticipated weather patterns, including storm cycles and dry spells during the upcoming fire season. They then review efficient fire-attacking strategies, pump types, water tank setup, and firehose use, along with radio frequencies for communicating within the department and also with law enforcement, Border Patrol, and more.
Much of the training this Spring has taken a new shape this year because of social distancing directions from the Governor’s Office and the State Fire Marshal. Training is still happening, he said, with only six to ten people at a time in order to avoid close contact. Sonoita-Elgin firefighters are being encouraged to practice physical fitness on their own and stay in shape without forming a crowd for activities like the 45-pound pack test, he said.
The Sonoita community faces extreme pressures to have their fire department as prepared and rigorously trained as possible. In April 2017, the first fire of the season sparked 120 continuous days with fire on the ground. A lightning strike later started a blaze that destroyed five houses along with thousands of grassland acres.
While residents risk losing a home, ranchers risk losing a wealth of grazing lands which reduces their cattle-feeding capacity for the year. Wine production, hunting, and hiking are equally affected by Santa Cruz County blazes. Tourism businesses rely heavily on firefighters to keep Highways 82 and 83 open.
Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wineworks recalls the 2009 fire that burned his house and reduced business in the area.
“Fires shut down the road and cut business in half,” said Bostock. “We survive on tourism so when big fires happen it affects our business.” Sonoita’s business owners are aware that out-of-town visitors see news of fire and figure they must cancel their plans to visit. This year, business is already slow with people staying at home because of Covid-19.
In order to mitigate the impacts, firefighters usually visit residents’ homes and trim weeds anywhere from 30 to 300 feet away from a house — for free. Houses with trimmed weeds have a proven higher survival rate during fires. This year, they are encouraging people to do those things themselves, with advice from the district about preventing sparks and not mowing dry grass. Trimmings at the Casas Arroyo, Tunnel Springs, and other homeowner associations have been postponed as well.
In normal years Sonoita-Elgin firefighters preemptively burn brush at local ranches when the wind is low and ground is moist. This helps ranchers clear land and create barriers that will slow flames’ movement. Although preemptive burns were postponed this year to prevent social gatherings, the fire district is still ready to serve, albeit with a few more precautions in place.
DeWolf said he is pleased that community members have stepped up and are trimming things themselves. Since firefighters have suspended nonessential visits to peoples’ homes, they are eager to provide locals with guidance about how to keep their yards safe from fire.
Fire season challenges have grown as the district’s population has increased. In the last several years, an average of five new homes have been built annually within the fire district’s jurisdiction. Two dozen have been built in the last two years alone. Three thousand people currently live in the district’s 1,745 homes. Business growth includes fifteen wineries, two breweries, and two distilleries. These homes and wineries are consuming unprecedented amounts of Santa Cruz County’s groundwater, leaving the fire service to be among those competing for what’s left. A declining water table exacerbates the fire department’s challenges to retrieve groundwater through their wells.
“We’ve got shrinking groundwater and dry grasslands,” explains Chief DeWolf. “This sustains a fire season which is now twelve months long.”
At 325 square miles, Sonoita-Elgin is a large area of responsibility for a district with only 13 full time firefighters. This staff is reinforced by 45 volunteers this year. All Sonoita-Elgin full time and volunteer firefighters are working on a variety of emergency medical technician firefighter, wildland fire, and paramedic certificates.
This force of 58 total responds to over 600 calls for fire and emergency medical assistance a year. The department also reinforces Patagonia’s volunteer department.
“We rely heavily on the Sonoita and Patagonia fire departments,” said Patagonia Mayor Andrea Wood. The Sonoita-Elgin Fire District has helped Patagonia stop house fires, she said.
They also provide additional emergency response. “EMTs are valuable in this area,” Wood said.
The district is getting a rundown of any symptoms related to Covid-19 to help assess the situation before arriving at local medical calls, and is limiting the number of responders per call. Sonoita firefighters are wearing masks and cleaning their clothes and equipment routinely several times a day to reduce likelihood of infection via their gear.
To make up for a lack of full-time staff, the fire district relies on a strong relationship with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, as they have first responders and law enforcement of their own to help bolster the fire department’s forces. The two agencies usually conduct monthly training during fire season.
Because of coronavirus, the training has been suspended. It will not resume until given the OK by the state fire marshal’s guidelines. Although training is taking a new shape, Chief DeWolf emphasizes that all agencies are doing internal training and are ready to go for this fire season.
Handling big fires will require a noticeable change in strategy. Large fires are normally fought using large firefighter crews. “I don’t expect to see 25 firefighters standing on the side of the road,” explains Chief DeWolf. Group size will be determined on a case-by-case basis, and the firefighters who show up will be spaced out from one another.
Although regular information meetings at the fire station and the local fairgrounds which educate locals about fire prevention have been postponed to enforce social distancing, education for residents to prevent fires is available on the fire district’s website. “When we teach some homeowners about how to make their homes safe, other homeowners follow suit,” said Chief DeWolf. “Despite medical or fire threats, it is important for us that we remain open to the public and ready to serve.” His goal is that safety training will spread faster than the fires themselves this upcoming season.
Editor’s note: A version of this story will appear in the summer 2020 special issue of the Patagonia Regional Times.