There’s no place like home.
For Los Angeles County Fire Assistant Chief Bill Niccum, those words ring true.
He attended Saugus Elementary School – back when it was next to IHOP on Bouquet Canyon Road – and graduated from Hart High in – well, let’s just say he’s an Indian with many feathers.
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He’s seen a lot in the last few decades, a lot of change and he misses some of the places that used to be, back in the day.
“My father is the one who directed me into fire service,” he recalled, sitting behind a gigantic desk in his office at Station 73 on Newhall Avenue. “He worked up San Francisquito Canyon for the (Los Angeles) Department of Water and Power. He had an opportunity to work for the fire department and chose not to. I think he kind of regretted that. When I was going through school, he recommended being a firefighter. My brother followed that path, and I followed.”
Niccum’s brother worked in Palm Springs for several years. The only time Niccum has not fought fires for L.A. County was during a six-year stint spent in Kern County.
“It was a great experience for me, but my heart was always in LA County,” he said. “The fact that I got promoted into Div. 3 just warms me because this is my home town. To come back and just get my arms around Santa Clarita as a whole, it makes me feel good.”
He remembers a time during elementary school when the principal walked the students across the railroad tracks and up the hill behind Bouquet Junction.
“He said for us to look over the valley and told us it would all be developed like the San Fernando Valley. There was a lot of doubt, but it came to be true.”
Niccum recalls the population was about 2,500 when he was growing up.
“It was a relatively small town, so to come back and see it developed as it has, I must say it’s well done and a model for other communities.”
That doesn’t mean that he isn’t taken back by incidents in his work.
“Probably the one that had the most impact on me was the Copper Incident a few years ago; the fire was making this incredible run up San Francisquito Canyon. I talked with the incident commander and asked him what resources are we moving in and found out he was not familiar with the area. I told him I was and offered to run intelligence on the fire.”
He and another firefighter got ahead of the blaze and came over the ridge where the DWP houses nestle near a creekbed near Powerhouse Two.
“When we pulled up further into the canyon, I saw the house that I was raised in was fully involved in fire. That really set me back.”
He’s settled comfortably into a career with what he considers the best corps of firefighters in the business.
“No place in the world has a greater recognition than the Santa Clarita Valley,” he explained. “We’re known for having the fastest moving fires. To meet that, we probably have some of the best wildland firefighters in the world as well.
Niccum also credits the county’s air support for their reputation.
“There’s no place in the world that has the aerial resources that we have in the SCV. In the recent Newhall incident, we had seven helicopters in that fire. Most of the world would be grateful to have one helicopter and we had seven. That speaks to our interagency abilities and our ability to work with our assisting agencies such as LA City Fire and the Angeles National Forest.
“We work so incredibly well together, it just happens,” he continued. “That is something we’re known for as well, managing large, complex incidents.
As the city’s new Fire Assistant Chief, he’s eager to spread the word about the county’s prevention program, “Ready! Set! Go!”
One of the elements of the program is hardening homes against fires, because wildland fires in this part of the state are just a fact of life
“Newer developments have incorporated a fuel modification plan, with relatively non-flammable fuels coming up to the house. The houses are also built without overhanging eaves, built to withstand a burnover much better than some of the older homes.”
Brush clearance is important as well, especially in more rural areas.
“When people clear brush and vegetation, they are giving us the opportunity to help them to defend their homes.”
He pointed out that some of the homes lost in the Buckweed Fire were due to ornamental vegetation.
“Those large palm trees or cypress trees, once the fire gets established in those, they just burst into embers and those embers will blow through the entire community,” he said. “Embers get in through attic vents, under garage doors, anywhere there is an opening and it’s pretty hard to get our arms around that.”
Along with the home protection, Niccum said that just knowing what to do during a fire is more than half the battle.
“Everything that we do, we have a plan for,” he said. “The Fire Department or any first responders, we don’t just operate off the cuff, we structure ourselves and develop a plan, so part of this Ready Set Go is to get residents to have a plan.
“One thing I like to keep in mind and I share with the guys I work with is that “what if” can happen at any time, so you want to have some idea of what you’re going to do.”
He said the unfortunate benefit that many locals have is living through fire season and having a close call.
“If no one has lived through a wildland fire with the heavy smoke, the heat, the chaos, it can be very frightening,” he said. “It’s not the time where you have sense of mind, so you want to have a plan, be somewhat prepared, know what the next step will be.”
Niccum said that the third and maybe the most important portion of the program is the actual “Go!” part.
“When an evacuation order comes down, you need to go,” he said. “But you don’t have to wait for an evacuation order to leave the area. If you’ve never lived through a fast-moving, complex, hot, smoky incident, it is very chaotic, because what happens is that people are trying to throw things together that they need, they’re trying to get their pets organized, they’re trying to evacuate the area, we’re trying to get resources into the area, everybody’s in a panic mode and it is very confusing.”
Once they’re out, Niccum said that people get very anxious about getting back.
“If you leave when we ask, we’re going to do everything we can to get you back in,” he said. “Generally once a fire burns through a community and we’re done, Edison has to come back, the phone company, gas company, all utilities have to come back in and fix the wires to make it safe. Sheriffs have to have presence because homes that did not burn may be open and have valuables inside, so they keep the community locked down. But you have to believe we’re going to do everything we can to get you back once it’s safe.”
Residents can pick up a copy of “Ready! Set! Go!” at any fire station or online at www.fire.lacounty.gov.