Lompoc's fire crews are well trained, but the city needs to fund a more robust department to ensure public safety

On Saturday evening, March 11, a very large fire occurred at the north end of Lompoc between Walmart and the airport.

The property, known as the “Campbell Coolers,” is a very large vegetable processing facility. There are several football field-sized piles of construction material, pallets, and boxes stored on the property. It was one of these piles that was ablaze; the cause is yet to be determined. However, there are security cameras in several places on the commercial buildings to the south of the fire and on the Campbell Cooler property to help determine when and how it started.

The Lompoc Fire Department consists of two pumpers (engines) staffed with three firefighters, a rescue truck with two firefighters, and a battalion chief 24/7. Based on scanner traffic, the original call was for “a pallet on fire behind Walmart”; this would have been a routine trash fire, but as the single engine that was dispatched reported: “There is a large fire, start a structure response.”

This would bring county and Vandenberg Space Force Base fire crews to assist. As Battalion Chief Scott Nunez arrived, he upgraded the response to a second alarm, which brought several additional county crews from Buellton, Gaviota, and Orcutt and a ladder truck from Santa Maria. Most were used for the firefight, others to respond to other calls for service.

It took a couple of hours for the fire to be brought under control using the “surround and drown” technique of applying large quantities of water; the tactic also protected surrounding buildings, and the following day none appeared to be damaged. The outcome would have been much different if the wind was blowing, but it was calm at the time.

Based on the number of fire crews required, this is the largest fire within the city limits in decades. It brings into focus why an adequately equipped, staffed, and trained fire department is critical to ensure public safety.

First let’s examine equipment. There are several very large multi-family residential, hotels, commercial, and industrial complexes of various ages, some more than 50 years old, throughout the city. As this fire points out, an aerial ladder is an essential tool to apply water promptly from above and/or rescue trapped people. The aerial truck used in this case traveled almost a half-hour from Santa Maria to Lompoc before it could be used.

With only two staffed fire engines, the city relies on mutual assistance from Santa Barbara County and Vandenberg Space Force Base to meet staffing and equipment requirements at building fires. If the nearest county crew is at another call for service, then the Vandenberg crew, with a 10- to 15-minute response time is the nearest resource.

Why are fire department response times and staffing levels important? During fires, flashover occurs when all the combustible materials in a room or compartment reach their ignition temperatures at the same time and can occur within six to 10 minutes of the inception of a fire. If fire apparatus and personnel are on the scene and can intervene prior to flashover occurring, property loss is decreased, thus risk to civilians and firefighting personnel is reduced.

To add to the staff/equipment problem, if one or both city pumper crews are on other calls, which is a common occurrence, the response will be delayed until they are finished with the current call.

The Lompoc fire crews are very well trained and spend many hours each week developing technical skills, equipment operation skills maintenance, and firefighting/rescue techniques. The command staff also spend many hours sharpening their incident command skills. Interdepartmental training and joint exercises are an integral part of the skills maintenance component of their training regimen.

At this fire, all of those hours of training paid off as they seamlessly worked with other agencies to protect adjoining buildings from the heat of this fire.

There have been many somewhat ineffective attempts by the political leadership in our city over the last several decades to provide citizens with adequate fire protection resources. For example, the City Council authorized purchase of a ladder truck nearly 40 years ago, but never authorized full-time staffing to operate it. 

Thus it was just a shiny object rather than an effective firefighting tool. This truck was recently retired because, during an annual inspection, structural cracking was detected at the base of the ladder; there is no plan to replace it.

This fire burned a large pile of pallets and boxes with an estimated value of $325,000, but the next could be in an occupied apartment building, hotel, or large commercial structure. 

Waiting several valuable minutes for outside help to arrive isn’t a responsible strategy. The City Council needs to address staffing and equipment issues carefully to ensure that the city has adequate and timely fire department response capability.

Ron Fink writes to the Sun from Lompoc. Send a letter for publication to [email protected].

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