The Hollister Fire Department saw a dramatic rise in calls in 2020, with COVID-19 complicating the job even further.
“This has been a monumental year for fires within our jurisdiction,” said HFD Chief Bob Martin Del Campo. “By June we had as many fires as we usually have in a normal year.”
Battalion Chief Charlie Bedolla agreed. “This whole year has just added more stress on the department and the public,” he said. “We were already on heightened alert, then you add COVID and the fire season, and everyone worked tirelessly. It has been a tough situation, a busy, hard time.”
In 2018 and 2019, the department handled a total of 164 fires. That number jumped to 221 in 2020, a 35% increase.
According to Martin Del Campo, the worst fire the department faced last year was the result of arson, when separate fires were started at Fifth and East Streets as well as Sixth and East Streets in downtown Hollister on Nov. 2.
“They were all pretty challenging,” Martin Del Campo said. “But those two fires downtown were especially difficult because they happened at the same time and we did not have enough resources on the scene to handle two fires like that in this small town. We tapped out our resources in three minutes. We called neighboring communities who gladly gave us equipment, like Watsonville, Salinas, Monterey, Aromas and Cal Fire.”
While being forced to stretch their resources to fight those two fires, the department also had to be available to handle any other emergencies.
“Just because we have one incident, it does not keep us from providing the service that they need and demand,” Martin Del Campo said.
Arson fires, like the ones on East Street, add a special burden to the department, but one they have developed resources to handle. In 2019, there were no arson fires in Hollister, a number that changed dramatically last year.
“We had 14 [arson] fires in 2020,” he said. “We have an arson task force, which we developed in the county. It consists of a battalion chief, three captains, and a couple of firefighters. We also have two deputy sheriffs and two police detectives who are trained in arson investigations. Last year we succeeded in making four arrests.”
In the case of the East Street fires, a suspect was arrested the next day.
Emergency medical calls were also up dramatically, from 2,158 in 2018 and 2,195 in 2019 to 2,646 in 2020, an increase of 20%. And the medical calls brought their own hazard: the teams responding were often going to homes where COVID-19 infections were suspected or confirmed.
“At the beginning of the pandemic,” Martin Del Campo said, “we would be responding to one or two calls a day where people would be telling us they had the symptoms of COVID. That number has gone up and if we get that kind of call, our people will come out in Tyvek suits, gloves, and face shields. It is labor-intensive, but it is necessary to protect our folks from any passage of the virus.”
Out of the 2,646 medical calls the Hollister Fire Department responded to last year, 895 were to suspected, assumed, or confirmed COVID-infected homes.
“It is just another part of the job,” said Bedolla. “We have to take more of those calls and it is taking a toll on everybody. It is heightened alert, the numbers keep going up and we get so many calls going out to these COVID situations. It is not to be taken lightly, we take it very seriously.”
As at-risk early responders, the department was put on the early vaccination list.
“Myself, along with my command staff and Cal Fire, elected to take the vaccine,” Martin Del Campo said. “We are trying to provide better preventive medicine for us to do our job.”
The only statistic that went down in 2020 was vehicle fires—from 346 calls in 2019 to 318 calls in 2020—an 8% decrease.
The high number of wildfires in California saw the Hollister Strike Team deployed in 11 instances, with specialized units that are an extension of the services already available for wildfires that occur all over San Benito County.
In 2020, the Hollister Fire Department sent its teams to the Coyote, River, CZU August Lightning Complex, August Complex West Zone, SQF Complex-Castle, Carmel, Creek, Glass, OES Preposition (Wildland-Wind), SCU Lightning Complex, and BEU Weather Event fires.
With the increased calls and the extra pressures put on firefighters in 2020, Martin Del Campo hopes people will be diligent about changing batteries in smoke detectors and take more care in preventing fires at home. He recommends never leaving space heaters or candles unattended and taking care of chimneys.
“If you use your fireplace, get the chimney cleaned every year,” he said. “And if you have a gas fireplace do not put any combustibles in it. Gas chimneys are not designed for the higher heat and can become compromised.”
Martin Del Campo is proud of the way the fire department stood up to the challenges of 2020.
“We know we are funded by the taxes in the community,” he said. “And we are honored to be there for the people in this area. We will always actively deploy whenever we are needed, answering the call to service.”
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