In the tiny firefighting metropolis at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, personnel and equipment were on the move since north state wildfires blew up in August.
CHICO — In the tiny firefighting metropolis at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, personnel and equipment were on the move since north state wildfires blew up in August.
Whoever walked by the public information trailer, acknowledged Scott McLean of Chico and visa versa.
McLean retired in April after 24 years, lastly as deputy director of communications for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — Cal Fire. He had handled public information on fires throughout California.
But like many whose career is in the world of disasters, he’s come back because he’s needed. With all the wildfires burning in California — 24 at last count — experienced personnel are priceless.
His expertise in communications and understanding of firefighting is huge in a world of depleted resources.
Asked why he’s back, a shoulder shrug is the answer. Then he mentions “contributing to the community” and getting the message out clearly.
Under McLean’s purview from early September have been the morning and evening and everything in between updates from Cal Fire on the North Complex West Zone fire which took over Butte County, causing 15 deaths.
Now that it’s 95 percent contained, some communication staff has been reassigned.
To other assignments
Rather than heading to see his grandchildren, McLean knows he’s needed in communications, doing Cal Fire’s statewide fire situation report in Sacramento.
It’s Oct. 1, flanked by a digital screen outlining California, 24 wildfires burn. McLean motions over the screen, “I have never seen this before, (fires) to this great an extent.”
Then come the numbers, McLean’s strength and what media devours:
Full containment announced on SCU Lighting Complex and LNU Lightning Complex in the Bay Area;
More than 17,000 firefighters working;
More than 8,100 wildfires have burned more than 3.95 million acres in California this year.;
As of Oct. 1, 96,000 residents evacuated from their homes, and more than 7,500 structures destroyed.
The human side comes out, “And sadly, there’s been another victim of the Zogg Fire burning in Shasta County, bringing that to four. Statewide there have been 30 fatalities this year.”
It’s been a historic fire year in California, as has been the pattern.
According to Cal Fire, five of the top 20 largest fires in California history have occurred this year.
As of Oct. 6 in this area, the August Complex in the western foothills is the biggest ever in California, having burned more than 1 million acres now. The North Complex in Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties is fifth in size, having burned 318,731 acres.
For destruction, the North Complex is fifth biggest for destruction, having destroyed 2,342 structures, and fifth deadliest, with 15 lives lost.
If there is a face of fire information in California, it is McLean’s, whose spirit belies his 66 years of life. He talks about his job, counting community service and being helpful. He doesn’t sidestep hard questions, saying he’d like to see better forest management, acknowledging the millions of trees killed or weakened by drought, beetles and life in California. Controlled burning is necessary, and he’s anxious to see what grants and state initiatives can bring.
Prior to being in Chico for North Complex updates since early September, he was working in the Bay Area on information for those fires.
The question is will he “retire” again, or be back for the inevitable next wildfire.
In Chico for the North Complex, his day started at the PIO trailer at 5:50 a.m.-ish. He would hop on the laptop, check for press releases, social media updates and data from overnight fire work like mapping acreage and structure destruction. Then he would churn out the update and prep for calls from the media.
In the case of big fires like the Camp Fire, he has answered calls from the European press at 1:30 a.m. Chico time, followed by East Coast press around 3:30 a.m., and then the locals after 6 a.m. He listens to the early morning briefings and starts updating his information. There could be a TV camera crew waiting for his time, or a major news outlet ready for an internet interview.
His point is to get information out to the public about the fires in the clearest way possible. His info sheets go to media of all types, VIPs and government leaders.
Sometimes his job is more than that, like on Nov. 8, 2018. He was headed down to Cal Fire headquarters in Sacramento when he got word about the early morning blaze about to sweep through Paradise. Swinging around, he headed to Pentz Road and pulled over to reassure some of the fleeing households.
There was a mother who looked shaken, but luckily her two little ones were immersed in their electronics.
“I just tried to reassure them. Told them to keep moving. If they could keep moving, they’d be fine.”
Having spent 24 years around calm-minded firefighters, McLean is sharp when he needs to be and happy-casual at other times. Early in the North Complex fire, a pointed press release came out about obeying the law, aimed at irresponsible, national media who were interfering with fire fighting.
“There was a national outfit that parked its rig in the road so that fire crews couldn’t get by. That’s against the law.”
His background adds to his ability to be flexible and responsive. Past jobs include delivery for Christian and Johnson flowers, manager of Meeks Lumber, and for a handful of years in the early 90s he was a volunteer firefighter as well. Then he joined Cal Fire in 1997.
Depending on the size of the blaze, there could be several PIOs, who’ve traveled from around the state or country. McLean has been from California’s north-to-south borders, and spent as long as three weeks away from his family.
It’s his family that prompted the retirement.
“I have five grandchildren, and three sons, and my wife. And I want to spend time with them.”
His wife Anne, a retired Chico Unified School District teacher who also worked with Cal Fire, was determined that retirement was a chance to travel too. The couple actually left the state in early September and made it to the Grand Canyon. They were back for a day or two when the mother of lightning storms rolled into California.
To its credit, Cal Fire has responded openly to the public’s calls for information, investing personnel like McLean to provide information. In part, helping communities under siege understand the situation keeps them safe and less likely to interrupt the firefighting process. It also helps squelch rumors fed by social media, which are abundant.
In Butte County, fire and other government officials have made it a practice to hold nightly press conferences on big fires or disasters. They often are live streamed on Facebook or recorded and available on all social media platforms, as well as live interviews and press releases. These conferences give the media and the public a chance to ask questions or make comments.
For the North Complex West Zone, the nightly briefings included reports about progress, air quality, injuries, outlook, property damage, and recovery resources. Early on, there were the reports of fatalities, which usually fell to Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.
Coming home to Chico from PIO stints outside the area gives him a chance to appreciate life here, and he’s determined to get on the road — for fun — much more often.
But fire is in his blood. His three sons have fire-related careers, including work for Cal Fire.
As a former volunteer firefighter, McLean encourages becoming a volunteer. Asked about the danger faced by volunteer firefighters who hold down regular day jobs too, McLean says, “It’s humbling. You don’t do it for the recognition. You’re helping, whether it’s at a house fire, car fire, a medical call.”
There’s more than camaraderie that comes from a job where dealing with disasters and people is the focus. It’s a brotherhood and sisterhood that is compelling but one the outside world may not comprehend. That bond may be what draws professionals like McLean back into action time and again.
There’s also the educational component. Every time he can, McLean stresses heeding evacuation notices that sheriff’s offices issue, and being ready for wildfires, which means everything from defensible space around a house to having a go-bag to knowing how to deal with pets and livestock during a fire. He’s the first to point to
Back to his Oct. 1 fire situation report, McLean looks into the camera to say, “Firefighters will be on the lines for many more days to come.”
There’s likely a good chance, so will Scott McLean.
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