The commander of Vandenberg Air Force Base’s 30th Space Wing held a town hall forum Tuesday evening to discuss the recent spate of fires on the base and address some of the community’s concerns.
Col. Christopher Moss led the event, which was held in the on-base theater. It was attended by about 50 VAFB residents, including enlisted Airmen and/or members of their families, who raised a number of concerns about the causes of the fires, the way that information was disseminated, and ways in which emergency response plans could be modified for the future.
One of the main topics of concern was how so many fires — a small fire Tuesday upped the total to five on the base in the last 10 days — managed to flare up in such a short amount of time.
Moss noted that fires are not uncommon on VAFB, given its size and location, but acknowledged that the frequency of fires over the past week and half was “unusual.”
“I am not, from that point, jumping to any particular conclusions,” he said.
Moss pointed out that each fire would be investigated to determine its cause, but he also noted that those areas that will be investigated have suffered a lot of damage and wear due to the fires and the efforts to stop them.
Although he stopped short of mentioning arson as possible cause, he did confirm that the base has increased its security measures. He did not divulge the exact nature of those heightened measures, but said that they were in response to the fires.
“Just as a precautionary measure, while we wait for the results of the investigations, we’ve implemented some very typical security measures … to help the base community understand that we understand their concerns, and also just out of recognition of the fact that we have had a couple of fires and, as was mentioned, statistically that’s not the norm here,” he said.
The stretch of fires began with the Canyon fire on Sept. 17. That fire eventually grew to more than 12,500 acres before becoming fully contained by firefighters seven days later. Moss noted that the fire was one of “historic proportions” for the base.
“We have not had a fire like this in 40 years,” he said.
While that fire was burning, the Washington fire, which grew to 215 acres, sparked on North Base on Sept. 22 and the Oak Canyon fire, which reached about 30 acres, ignited a day later near the federal prison complex on base property. Both those fires were also fully contained by Sept. 24.
A fourth fire began Monday near Corral Road, which is near the base’s Utah Gate and eventually grew to about 4 acres. The fifth fire, which sparked up just before Tuesday’s town hall, was limited to about one-tenth of an acre.
At least two of the smaller fires were initially attributed to downed power lines.
Moss went over the locations and details of the fires during his nearly hour-long presentation Tuesday. He noted that base housing was never in danger, and also reaffirmed afterward that no launch facilities were directly impacted by the fires.
The Canyon fire caused the postponement of an Atlas V rocket launch from Space Launch Complex-3 on Sept. 18, but Moss said the rocket and its cargo — an imaging satellite — were not damaged. He noted that the delay of the launch, which United Launch Alliance said won’t happen until sometime in October at the earliest, could have a domino effect and cause future launches to also be delayed.
In response to questions from on-base residents, Moss advised them to visit www.vandenberg.af.mil for updates and to utilize military-sponsored alert systems. One attendee suggested using local radio stations to broadcast information, which is something Moss said he would look into.
More than 1,000 firefighters responded to the fires, most of them to the Canyon fire. Moss said the cost of battling the blazes will likely be around $10 million or more.
He declined to estimate the cost of any damage, as he noted that areas still needed to be assessed.
Moss, who took over as commander of the 30th Space Wing in July 2015, said this was the first time under his stewardship that outside agencies were needed to respond to a fire on the base. He said he was appreciative of the level of response from those agencies, which spanned the state.
“They certainly did an unbelievable job,” he said. “The response was amazing. The fact that you could, within 72 hours, bring 1,000 firefighters with their unique equipment and their specialized gear and deploy them on the fire lines ready to engage the fire in that amount of time was just staggering.”
After the forum, in which he fielded several questions and comments from base residents, Moss said he felt like the event served its purpose.
“Obviously in a situation like this, people get exposed to it and they have questions,” he said. “I thought the questions that came out today were good questions and we can always strive to be better, so we will, as a result of this, go back and say, ‘How can we do things even better?’
"But having said that, I’m confident that the processes that were put in place and that we have as a standard part of our base operating procedure are adequate for what we’re trying to do.”