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Many interfered during big fires
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On May 3, Ceres firefighters had a busy firefighting day with two serious incidents. At 12:21 p.m., a motorhome caught fire, causing serious burns to the victim. At 7:11 p.m., a shed in a residential neighborhood caught fire with explosions that severely burned a roof and a second house also having serious damage. Fortunately, there were no injuries in the second incident, but property damage was significant. Due to the smoke and fire, the scene was a rather large public spectacle. Alarming was the behavior of some of motorists and pedestrians drawn to these emergencies.

Both incidents drew large crowds and a lot of traffic, which became a problem for the fire and police personnel on scene. Specifically, the fire department experienced delays in arriving because of onlooker motorists clogging the streets and failing to move out of the way of emergency vehicles. These delays could have easily led to injuries or deaths, had it not been for the fact that the police were able to evacuate homes adjacent to the burning structures before firefighters arrived.

Other actions that caused us problems included people walking onto the firefighting grounds, refusing to obey lawful orders to keep away from the scene and interfering with police officers and firefighters. In several instances, people had to be told multiple times to move away from the scene. Motorists in the area were forced to leave the area and others had to be told to keep away from the equipment. These actions were obviously necessary for safety, security and firefighter effectiveness, and it was surprising how many people were uncooperative and abusive.

Police were forced to expand their safety perimeter in an effort to maintain control. Having to close so many streets is not normal for an incident like this. Expanding the perimeter required more officers and left the protection zone for the firefighters understaffed. Many motorists who were just passing through Ceres attempted to detour into the area where the houses were burning to see. They were slow to leave when ordered to do so, and their continued efforts to access the area added a serious burden to already taxed public safety resources.

Another serious problem resulted from people approaching the fire scene command post to ask questions, listen and watch the fire scene activities. The fire scene commander is in a critical position, responsible for command and coordination of the entire incident. That person is also responsible for the safety and welfare of the firefighters and people with homes affected by the fire. The command post had to have a police officer assigned to it to protect the functions of the fire incident commander. This is not normally necessary, as people in the past have properly kept their distance from the incident commander.

With so many people doing the wrong things, I have to believe that their behavior derives from a lack of respect for other people, a total absence of courtesy, disregard for other peoples' property and for the safety workers who deal with these emergencies at their own peril. It is my hope that the people who did not know they were doing wrong can learn from this writing, and avoid the same mistakes in the future. I have instructed the police and fire managers to assume a no-tolerance policy for people who fail to follow orders. Individuals who refuse to comply with instructions given by emergency personnel will be cited or booked into jail.

It is a violation of the California Vehicle Code section 21707 to drive within 300 feet of an emergency scene - which means that drivers and vehicles not authorized to be in the area could receive a citation. It is also a violation of the California Vehicle Code section 21708 to drive over fire hoses, which not only causes damage to the hose, but could also endanger the lives of firefighters. It is a violation of California Penal Code section 409.5 to willfully and knowingly enter the immediate area surrounding any emergency field command post or closed area after receiving notice to evacuate or leave, and is a misdemeanor.

On the positive side, most people acted properly. They knew to stay away or to leave as quickly as possible in order to avoid interfering with our efforts. Yet others were outraged by the behaviors displayed by those who were either unwittingly or intentionally hampering the safety crews' efforts. Local reporters and media photographers also contributed positively to the situation by not becoming part of the problem and by being respectful of the work underway by the firefighters.

The second fire situation, particularly, was a large emergency event to manage, since it involved 24 firefighters, 5 fire engines, 2 ladder trucks, 10 police officers and 3 volunteers. All nine on-duty (and some off-duty) Ceres firefighters responded to both fires. Modesto and Stanislaus Consolidated firefighters contributed much to the effort for the second fire, and Hughson firefighters even responded to back-fill one of our empty fire stations in case another emergency call came in. Because of the behaviour of some of the pedestrians and motorists, the job was more difficult and dangerous, but the professionals overcame those obstacles.

Fortunately, there were no reported injuries to residents or firefighters from the large fire on this night. This was because of the early neighborhood evacuations and the large contingent of firefighters that responded. Overall, these firefighting efforts were successful owing to excellent firefighter, police and dispatcher performance, and the team efforts of mutual aid agencies from neighboring communities. For the people who respected the emergency crews and the situation, I appreciate the support and concern, not only for our personnel, but also for those people whose lives and property were in danger. We sincerely hope that the disruptive behaviors we saw last week were one-time events, not to be repeated in the future.