County employees fighting California wildfires

  • 0

SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. -- Two Sarasota County employees are helping federal authorities as they battle raging wildfires in northern California.

Cesar Rodriguez-Palacios and Raymond Vinson are both part of the county's "eco-burn" team, which plans and conducts prescribed burns on county-managed lands. They volunteered to be part of a crew organized by the Florida Fire Service for a program that sends professionals to different parts of the country on a two-week stint fighting wildfires.

Rodriguez-Palacios, a water/wastewater environmental specialist in the county's public utilities department, said he had lots of reasons for signing up for the program for a third time and putting his life on the line.

"There are several things that come into play: my experience, the physical challenge and I get to see other areas of the country," said Rodriguez-Palacios, a 15-year employee with Sarasota County.

On Friday, Rodriguez-Palacios and his crew had just finished containing the Coffee Fire, which encompassed more than 6,000 acres in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near the small community of Coffee Creek, Calif. Vinson, an environmental specialist for the county, has been part of a team battling the larger July Complex wildfire, a group of three fires burning in the Klamath National Forest in Yreka, Calif.

The challenge can be great. Unlike the flat terrain of Florida, firefighters there must often hike into the mountains to battle the blazes as part of the "initial attack" team. Their time can be spent digging trenches to stop the spread of the fires or cleaning up already burnt areas so that embers don't spread and start new fires. In between action, they camp out and can be assigned to different fires as needed.

In addition to helping save residences and lands threatened by the wildfires, the deployment also allows Rodriguez-Palacios and Vinson a chance to work under the Incident Command System, which is also used by Sarasota County for emergency response. The experience will allow them to bring back new techniques they can share with their Eco-Burn team and which also translate to hurricane response or other emergency situations.

Jay Bailey, a wildfire mitigation specialist and burn supervisor with the Sarasota County Fire Department, has traveled to fight wildfires before as part of the program and said the experience and skills his co-workers will bring back to Sarasota are invaluable.

"The teamwork that goes into it, the rounding up of the team, the organizational structure is important," Bailey said. "There's a big benefit."

Vinson and Rodriguez-Palacios are due to return home by Aug. 24.