Fighting fire, Santa Clarita style
As a former Compton Fire Department firefighter/paramedic, William Sierra never imagined that there would be such a stark contrast between his duties as a firefighter in an urban setting and in his new role as a rookie Los Angeles County firefighter assigned to the Santa Clarita Valley. On just his second shift in the valley at Fire Station 132 in Canyon Country, the difference became all too real…quick, fast and in a hurry.
“I worked for Compton Fire Department for about 15 and a half years,” Sierra explained. “I learned a lot there (in Compton), he said. “It was a pretty rough area and very active, but here it’s totally different – I’m not used to brush.”
“Now that I’m here at Fire Station 132, the No. 3 station in the county for brush fire calls, I’ve been getting a lot of brush calls – nonstop,” he added.
Just nine months into his probationary period, the married father of two young kids transferred to the valley just before the worst of the wildland fire season. He would soon be introduced to one of the largest fires this season thus far: the Lake Fire.
“We were here at the station and could see it up on the mountain just grow and grow,” he said. “That night we actually responded (dispatched) to that fire.” “We drove through what you literally could call ground zero and there was fire all around us – houses going up, cars.”
As Sierra recounted his experiences, it was almost like he was reliving each one in his mind in the moment, easily gliding from one fire right into the next without taking a breath.
“With the Soledad Fire, that one was right down the street here, we were the first engine on scene and it was goin’ – fire everywhere,” he said. “Flames 50 feet in the air in front of you!”
Sierra said that since his graduation from the academy, “things don’t always go like we trained,” but that in spite of those challenges, being in good shape and pacing himself helps him with the adjustments.
Meanwhile, across town at Fire Station 123, Probationary Firefighter Sean Piper, a former Air Force firefighter spoke excitedly about the differences between his tenure as a military firefighter and his newfound passion as a Los Angeles County firefighter.
“Now I just get to focus on riding on a fire engine, not so much (military) aircraft and I get to go on these strike teams and big campaign fires.” Piper explains, relating that his duties as a seven-year Air Force firefighter also included being active military and having to potentially deploy to areas of conflict.
“I’ve been with LA County for a month and a half now after an eight-week academy, so I’m still pretty new – but I’ve been a firefighter in the past, just for a lot smaller department,” Piper said.
The married, 31-year old father of two called his experience responding to the Lake Fire, “a cool experience.”
From hiking hills to helping residents re-populate a neighborhood to helping other firefighters with something called “plumbing a line” or supplying water to a progressive hose lay up a steep hillside, Piper now understands that battling brush fires in Santa Clarita Valley is like night and day compared to his military assignment and at times means assuming more mundane tasks.
“I got a chance to see just how things come together – There are so many roles that have to be played on these brush fires,” he said. “These hills are like, straight up and down.” he said. “I knew the brush was gonna be a tough experience – hard on my body – but just being on the front lines fighting fire, and being supportive.” he said. “We all have our roles, that was the biggest take away I learned.”
Both firefighters literally received a baptism by fire responding to the Lake Fire, which started on Aug. 12, near Lake Hughes. It blackened more than 31,000 acres, destroyed 33 structures and outbuildings, and damaged three other structures. Four firefighters sustained non-life-threatening injuries and as destructive as it was, there was no loss of life.
The Soledad Fire broke out a month earlier than the Lake Fire, just northeast of Santa Clarita. That blaze was responsible for completely closing down State Route 14, a major thoroughfare, in both directions for a day, and burned more than 1,500 acres. At one point, nearly 5,000 structures were threatened. However, firefighters were able to make quick work and no structures were lost. There were no injuries or deaths reported and both wildfires are still under investigation.
Although Piper had previous firefighting experience before being hired with LA County and coming to the Santa Clarita Valley, he admits even before the military, he wasn’t sure at first what his life’s vocation was.
“Coming out of high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “I played sports and I knew I wanted to do something with my hands.” He credits a friend of his, also enlisting in the military, who suggested he become a military firefighter, and the rest is history.
Looking forward, both Sierra, already trained as a paramedic and Piper with hopes of becoming trained as one after completing probation, both bring infectious enthusiasm and passion for the job to their positions.
“I love firefighting, being a paramedic,” he explained. “I love to do work.”
When asked if either of them could come up with one word for their experiences here in Santa Clarita, they both agreed on one word: “dynamic.”
Canyons News reporters first person, second person and third person contributed to this story.