E. Matt Gil
E. Matt Gil
Assistant Fire Chief, Los Angeles County Fire Department

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Sunday, June 11, 2006
(Television interview conducted June 7, 2006)

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is Assistant Fire Chief E. Matt Gil of the Los Angeles County Fire Department — and Fire Chief for the City of Santa Clarita. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: As assistant fire chief, you're in charge of what area?

Gil: I have the jurisdiction from Pasadena to Gorman (and) from Chatsworth to Acton.

Signal: So basically where all the fires happen.

Gil: We have 14 fire stations.

Signal: Your area is all brush.

Gil: We frequently burn here, and when we burn, we receive running fires because of our topography.

Signal: Is it going to be a bad fire season?

Gil: We're looking for that type of season because we have two seasons of grass (to) burn. From 2004 to 2005, remember we had 30 inches of rain, and if you look back to last season — we had some fires, no significant fires, but not enough to take care of that fuel.

Signal: The last big conflagration was the 2004 Verdale fire (that started in Val Verde)?

Gil: Verdale and the Simi Valley fire. But then we had the Topanga fire that burned up 25,000 acres, which was a historical fire because normally that fire tends to go to the beach. This year we were very successful in stopping it at the 101 Freeway.

Signal: We didn't have any major fires in the Santa Clarita Valley last year.

Gil: We had about 30 fires, averaging from 20 to 25 acres. We were able to catch them at the ridgetops. When they came out of their slope, or out of the wind, we were able to catch them.

Signal: So everything that didn't burn last year is going to burn this year?

Gil: It's ready.

Signal: What are the factors that come together to make it a bad fire season?

Gil: The fuel, No. 1, and we have the light fuels, the grass that will take the fire from roadways and trails; humans most of the time create that type of environment for that fire. So we have the annual grasses that will carry that fire to the heavy brush areas.
    After the Foothill fire, if you remember that, we burned that whole east end off the 14 Freeway, so we have a lot of grass that can carry fire. Then all we need is a good, 15 to 20 mph wind to push that fire up in there. And then we have the topography. So, depending on the location of that fire, if we have the fuel, we have the heat and the topography and the wind, we're in good shape for a fire.

Signal: How well equipped are you to handle it?

Gil: We're well equipped. Right now, we are finishing our training. As far as command, what we do at the command level (is) we go through historical fires. We go through all the different fires and we go back as far as 1966 in this area and look at all the different fires in those particular areas. A lot of these fires, after 10 years, once they burn through, they're back in the same condition they were prior to that fire. Folks who have been in the Santa Clarita area, everything north of us, besides the Copper fire, all of those areas have grown back and are ready.

Signal: A couple of years ago it seemed there was one fire after another breaking out all over Southern California, and the resources must have been stretched thin. What kind of contingency plans do you make for that sort of thing?

Gil: In California, we're broken up into regional areas. The Los Angeles County Fire Department is Region 1. We are the coordinator for Region 1; we have six contract cities which are the major fire municipalities in California, for the size that we are. Once L.A. County has a fire, we'll bring in those resources, and then if it starts to grow bigger, we'll go to these other counties, Ventura County, Orange County, Kern County, and bring those resources in.
    Once you start saturating those resources, then we go to Master Mutual Aid, which brings all the resources within Southern California. Once you get through that, then we go out of state and bring those resources in.
    Our biggest advantage is that No. 1, we have outstanding training — and I'm not talking just (about) Los Angeles County Fire Department, but L.A. City, Burbank, Ventura, Kern — those are our cooperators. We play together and we practice together. Our main goal is to get on that fire with as much equipment as we can, to keep it small. If we can keep our fires to 25-, to 30-, to 50-acre fires, we're very successful.

Signal: You've mentioned previously that you operate with three-man crews instead of four-man crews because there isn't enough money for a fourth man on a fire truck. How is the personnel situation now?

Gil: We all understand that staffing levels, in employment, that's the highest cost for any organization. Historically, though, with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, if you go back, we were a rural type of department, and it's like our culture, (to have) the three-man engine company.
    If you look at the operation and the training that we provide, we're able to make up for that — not fourth man, but without the fourth man being on that engine. When we start increasing our fire weather activity, we have augmented staffing and we staff that fourth man on those four-man engine companies.
    Also, with (California Department of Forestry), we have agreements that they'll bring in additional strike teams. So it's not uncommon during the brush season, which you'll see here in Santa Clarita, is that you'll have an additional five engines that staff at Fire Station 126, some at (Fire Station) 73 on San Fernando Road, and then we'll have also CDF, because we have a lot of shared-interest lands that are bordering the city — they'll bring that five-man engine company and they're staged within there. During the high fire season in the Santa Clarita Valley, we'll have 10 additional engines in here.

Signal: There's a lot of state-owned land and federally owned land in our valley. You mentioned the state; are the feds also obligated to come in and provide fire suppression?

Gil: Yes, we have an agreement. It's called "Initial Action Zone"; in some areas (it's called) "Mutual Threat Zone." What that is — as I mentioned earlier that our objective is to get as many resources on a fire to keep it small — well, when we have fires within those borders, the federal, along with the state, will send (similar) resources. Not only will you have five engines, four camp crews, two water tenders, two dozers and four helicopters; you'll have that duplicate coming from the federal and the state side, too. Normally, from the federal side, we have the engine company and hand crews and possibly a (heli)copter.

Signal: The Santa Clarita Valley is growing in population; are you able to add fire stations fast enough?

Gil: We were a little bit behind the curve, and now we're picking it up. It's pretty complex. We don't have the ability to go out there and buy land, and especially now you look at Santa Clarita, the land values, we are purchasing a new piece of property out there to replace our temporary (Fire Station) 104 down at Soledad Canyon and the cross-(valley) connector; we're going through that. We have another four stations that are coming down the pike, and hopefully, if everything goes well, we're looking in two to three years to have an additional four new stations within the valley.
    We depend on the developer, through that agreement, and obtaining the purchase of the land; then we go in there and build it and need to staff it.

Signal: Ultimately the city of Santa Clarita or the county of Los Angeles, if it's outside of the city, have to make sure that they're requiring developers to provide space for fire stations.

Gil: Right. And we're up to speed with that. It's pretty complex. It was interesting — I went back and looked at some agreements that were done in 1965: four stations out here; we were calling for a 3,400- to 4,000-square-foot fire station. That was the agreement. Now we're up to 8,000- (to) 10,000-square-foot fire stations, especially for the equipment, and all the equipment that we carry now on our apparatus.

Signal: What does the law say about brush clearance? And what can people do to protect themselves?

Gil: Well, to start off with, all the outside homeowners who are interfaced with the wildland area, what we call "front country" or the brush, they're sent out in response and they've already sent out in April a notice saying that they have to provide their brush clearance within 200 fee. That's a first notice, and we've identified all those folks. Most of those folks, especially the last two years, have been very compliant.
    Normally, we'll start our brush inspections May 15. But because of our wet season that we had, that you saw in April and in late March, here was some moisture; well we still have that growing. So we (moved) it back to start our brush inspection June 1. We've gone out there, and it appears that 85 to 90 percent of the folks have been coming into compliance now with their brush clearance.
    If they provide their clearance, that allows us a chance to get in there and stop that fire (from) encroaching into their property. What that essentially does, it just reduces that fire intensity for us to put the fire out.

Signal: What are the penalties for noncompliance?

Gil: Once we've gone out there and inspected, (we will hang an inspection sheet) on your door. On the sheet, it'll have a check box (that says), "You're in compliance." And if not, (there is) a check box with "non-compliant," (and we) have a sheet in there showing where you need to be compliant. Once that (is done), we'll come out one more time and inspect, and if it's not in (compliance), we send it to our brush clearance office. They come out and speak with the owners and attempt to gain compliance within a 30-day period. If not, then it goes to the county Agricultural (commissioner), and county Agriculture will come out and clean it. The cost will be put on your taxes at the end of the year.
    And those crews are not cheap. (With) vacant land, we're able to get a tractor with a mower in there. But if it's not, if it's residential and they're not in compliance, then we put hand crews out there, and you can just imagine that cost.

Signal: Are some types of plants better to plant on rural property that others?

Gil: Yes, and remember, plants and especially our natural chamois and sumac out here — these plants that are native to Southern California are high-oil-content plants. So all we're doing is throwing about a gallon of gasoline inside these plants.
    So we're looking at other type(s) of vegetation (that) have a lower oil content. We have our Forestry Division that could assist any homeowner; call in to your local station; we can provide you the number for our vegetation management folks, and they can call you and meet with you and come up with a plan for your area. ... There are different types of soil out there, and we've played with all that dirt out there, so we pretty much know what will grow and what won't.

Signal: Wasn't there a fire bug out there last year or the year before?

Gil: The year before.

Signal: Was anybody prosecuted?

Gil: I think he relocated his employment or something. It was on I-5 that we did have a frequency of starts, and they were always on the southbound lanes. We were fortunate that we were able to jump on those, and the annual grasses were very thin so they didn't carry fire very well, or the wind was out of alignment, so we were able to catch these fires.
    One of the other areas that we experienced last year was down (Interstate) 5 off of Wiley Canyon and also The Old Road, with hot brakes. It was pretty interesting; we had a vehicle that ended up catching — every 100 feet or 200 feet, it was starting a little fire. We had seven fires going off at one time, and we were able to catch the vehicle down by Balboa (Boulevard). He was steel-to-steel; he was throwing off sparks and catching the grass (on fire).

Signal: Are there still fire bugs out there? We seem to have a history of that.

Gil: It's all about behavior. There is always a perfect place and a perfect time, and we haven't been very successful in identifying anyone. But it may come about.

Signal: A few weeks ago a dead infant was found in a trash receptacle at the Polynesian Mobile Home Park. Apparently the responsible party didn't know about — or at least didn't take advantage of — a program that you're involved with. Tell us about that.

Gil: "Safe Surrender" your baby. With my new community service rep, Stephanie English, and with Henry Mayo hospital and the Sheriff's Department this year, we've provided some programs to get the word out and rejuvenate that.
    We just finished up going to the Newhall (Community) Center and three other locations in the community and trying to reach those folks and let them know about that. For example, we had one in Sand Canyon. You go figure, you would think, why Sand Canyon? That was very successful. The mother turned the child in.
    When they turn the child in, they have up to 14 days to come back and say, "I'd like to have the child back." This particular one, when (she) turned the child in, the mother (got) a tag and it has a number to call if she wanted to follow up on that. That child was adopted and is living and doing very well.

Signal: So if you're a mother who has just given birth, how old can the infant be when you decide you don't want the child?

Gil: Within 72 hours, you can do that as long as the child is in good health. (You can go to a) fire station (or hospital) and just turn in (the child) with no questions asked or anything.

Signal: What if it's longer than the initial 72 hours before the mother realizes she doesn't want the child? What can the mother do then?

Gil: The bottom line is, that's a number, and common sense takes over. We're after survival, in taking care of the child, so more than likely we'll take care of it. The child, once it's taken and has gone to the hospital and provided care, shortly after all that, we look for adoption.

Signal: When was the one in Sand Canyon?

Gil: Last year.

Signal: That person brought a child to a fire station?

Gil: (Yes.)

Signal: How long has this program been going on?

Gil: (Since) 2001. We've had 44 babies surrendered (throughout) Los Angeles County. And for 2006, we've had eight throughout the county.

Signal: Of those, how many have there been in the Santa Clarita Valley? Was the one in Sand Canyon the only one?

Gil: That was the only one here locally.

Signal: How are you getting the word out about the program?

Gil: We did (public service announcements), and we went out to the communities and advertised. We went to the Spanish-speaking community and had interpreters. We have fliers out in the community at businesses and in their windows.

Signal: Do you find that people generally know about the program?

Gil: No, they don't. That's why we've made the big push. And (like) the swimming pool program, the fireworks program — we need to keep that on the edge of people's thoughts, so if that happens, they can communicate that to their friends.

Signal: Tell us about the swimming pool program.

Gil: Our local public information officer, along with Stephanie English, will be putting together a program for pool safety — that your gates are secure and the children should always be supervised; have phones close by, and in case they do have a near-drowning, what you can do to assist them, once you call 911.

Signal: Are there some pointers you can give about pool safety?

Gil: The simplest, easiest thing to do is: Do not un-supervise those children. If you have a pool, as soon as you unlock that gate, then it's time for you to be aware of all your surroundings. Do not divert your thoughts to a laptop; we've had those around the pool, where (adults are) working on their work and not paying attention to the child, (or they're) on the phone, cooking, getting a sandwich together, getting some snacks together, looking out the window and getting diverted from that. The bottom line is, if you have a pool, if you have the children, they need to be supervised.

Signal: Let's talk about Fourth of July fireworks safety. You go to Fillmore and pick up some little "safe and sane" fireworks and set them off in the street in front of your Valencia home. Anything wrong with that?

Gil: It's against the law.

Signal: Sure, but it's harmless, isn't it?

Gil: Nope. It's against the law. And we live in a wildland area in a community that is subject to wildland fires, and it doesn't work. The fireworks and brush and the safety of children — (it does) not work. If everyone here in Santa Clarita felt it was safe, then they would probably pass an ordinance to have that. But it's not.
    We're fortunate that we have that (law) here. Last year, we did have some folks out there pushing the envelope, but it wasn't "safe and sane." Bottle rockets, they were almost professional grade. There were some areas last year that attempted to enjoy some festivities, and our Fire Department, along with sheriffs, went up there and spoke with the parents and we were able to calm that down by the Fourth of July. (It was) about two or three days before (July 4) that folks were getting a little antsy, and we were able to get out there and be a little proactive.
    (On) the Fourth of July, some did get away with it, but we're going to be enforcing it. We're partnered up with the Sheriff's Department and we're going to do a pretty good job this year.

Signal: What are you allowed to do? Can you give one of those little sparklers to your kid?

Gil: No. It's not legal.
    We do have four shows that are going to be in the Santa Clarita Valley. We're going to have (a fireworks show) at Castaic Lake; Stevenson Ranch — which was a great show last year; I was able to see a piece of that — and the Valencia Town Center mall and Magic Mountain. And it wasn't surprising, but they were heavily attended last year, and it was great. They were great shows...

Signal: But don't do this at home.

Gil: Don't do it.

Signal: You don't usually see the sheriff's going out there and busting everyone who does it—

Gil: We're going to confiscate them. What was interesting to me, what I saw personally last year, is that we did receive a lot of phone calls from the neighbors and residents. They issued concerns that, "We know they shouldn't be doing it, and we feel kind of guilty calling about it." But we do live in a wildland area, and we went out there and we took care of business. We were very congenial about it, but we did take care of business. Some of the folks said, "Yup, we were guilty," and we took over their fireworks and the sheriffs took care of it.

Signal: It seems we've had a lot of house fires in this valley lately. What's going on?

Gil: You always think (that) there's something trendy out there, and you see with (Emergency Medical Services), a lot of times we see some trends in EMS and we adjust to those. We may have senior citizens (who) are all getting at that same (age), or pool incidents, (that) type of thing.
    This year it was really strange, because the city manager, Ken Pulskamp, calls me up and says, "What's going on with these electrical fires?" We did have about four electrical fires within a three-week period.
    (We found) that two of the electrical fires were in the enclosures with combustible material up against the electrical receptacles, and they short-circuited for whatever reason. It may have been moisture or just overload, and the clothing contributed to the fire. The other two were because they were built within a combustible type of material and short-circuited. We didn't have power outages; we didn't have power overloads; they were just within the wall socket.

Signal: Some of this goes back to basic fire safety: Don't lean stuff up against—

Gil: Exactly. Along with the fireworks, we had some folks (who) store combustibles on their back porches and we'll have those bottle rockets land in there and go right up on the wood side, and get everything burning. So we always look at good housekeeping; when we do fire prevention with our commercial (properties), within the jurisdiction, that's one thing we inspect, the housekeeping. If we're looking at a wood manufacturer, are they keeping the wood chips and dust clean? Do those present a problem if we have a spark or something — not only the initial fire but a secondary explosion within those areas.
    Same thing at your home. (It's) no different. Fuel is fuel. Old clothing, bag of clothing, gasoline cans, rubbish is packed up, that's all fuel ready to burn.

Signal: We're headed into a high fire season. If somebody from the Los Angeles County Fire Department comes by your house and tells you to get out, what should be the response?

Gil: They should say, "We'll do it." (It's) best to be prepared.
    Once again, come by your local fire station; that is the residents' fire station. If you have any questions, come by and sit down with the firemen there, and they'll take care of you. They'll guide you right along.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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