The Weekly Calistogan: The gift of Engine 319

July 14, 2021 by Dana Cole

One year ago the Calistoga Fire Department took delivery of Engine 319, a parting gift from a generous Calistoga donor, facilitated by the Napa Valley Community Foundation.

When E-319 went into service last July, it was the newest, most state-of-the-art wildland fire engine in Napa County. It is also the finest fire apparatus in Calistoga’s fire fleet history, a “Type 3” heavy-duty 4-wheel-drive truck that carries 500 gallons of water.

The Type 3 is the workhorse fire engine for wildland firefighting. It is designed for mobile attack, pump-and-roll firefighting, able to connect to fire hydrants for continuous flow or to refill on the run. It is the frontline ground attack vehicle for the kind of difficult terrain often encountered on “wildland-urban-interface” fires, which have become the most destructive type of fire in the U.S.

Calistoga Fire Department’s old Type 3 (Engine 219) was over 23 years old and had numerous mechanical issues. When the Tubbs Fire struck in 2017, the department had been saving money for 10 years to purchase a replacement for its top-line engine. The funds for this purchase — proceeds from years of bingo nights and other fundraisers — still fell short by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then out of the blue, a local anonymous donor wrote a check to the Calistoga Firefighter Association for $435,000 to cover the total cost for the number one item on the department’s wish list.

By freeing up the funds that had been saved, the gift allowed the department to upgrade E-219, replace the old E-19 structure engine, and purchase a new brush attack truck, B-19. As a result, when E-319 was put into service last July, Calistoga’s fire fleet was the strongest and most up-to-date in the city’s history.

And none too soon. Less than two months later, Napa County was hit with the longest fire siege in its history, starting with the lightning storms of mid-August and continuing nonstop for more than two months, culminating with the Glass Fire that burned more than 1,000 homes and commercial buildings in Napa and Sonoma Counties.

When the Glass Fire erupted near Crystal Springs Road in the predawn hours last Sept. 27, E-319 and the rest of Calistoga’s fire fleet were among the first initial attack forces to arrive on-scene. For the next three days, Calistoga’s firefighters chased hotspots and saved an uncounted number of structures along Crystal Springs and Glass Mountain Roads, throughout Deer Park, and as the fire spread toward Calistoga, along Silverado Trail, Dunaweal, and Diamond Mountain.

Racing from flareup to flareup, refilling tanks on the run and playing a dangerous game of tag with erratic winds and fire behavior, interface firefighting is unlike anything else encountered in peacetime. Interface fires are almost impossible to train for, given the chaotic conditions, none of which are replicable under controlled circumstances. It is, quite simply, some of the most unpredictable and dangerous firefighting there is.

It takes courage to drive up a long, narrow road with towering flames on either side, but it also takes confidence in the capability, maneuverability, and reliability of the truck you ride in. As Calistoga Fire Chief Steve Campbell describes last September’s firefight, “Our guys were able to run non-stop for three days, getting in and out of tight spots and steep driveways” with minimal fear of breaking down.

In the aftermath of the 2020 fire siege, Chief Cambell reflected on the timely arrival of E-319 and related upgrades to Calistoga’s fire fleet. “It’s hard to express what that one gift did,” he said. “I think about it every day.”

Few small-town fire departments have been tested as ours has been these past few years. One of the silver linings for us as a community is how fortunate we are now to have some of the most experienced and accomplished interface firefighters anywhere.

And we are fortunate as well to have been neighbors, for a time, with the anonymous donor who was inspired to give our firefighters the tools to protect lives and property to the best of their ability, as safely as possible. Thanks to this combination of personnel and equipment, Calistoga now has the best quality of fire protection in its history.

That’s quite a gift.

Dana Cole

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