Local firefighters waste no time in heading to fight California firesWithin 24 hours a team is assembled and on the road BY CHUCK TUCK | JOURNAL REPORTER As the fires raged in southern California, Washington residents enjoyed the usual mild climate for this time of year.
With firefighting team’s nearing exhaustion and flames continuing to jump fire lines, there was an urgent need for assistance from out-of-state firefighters to lend a helping hand to fight the California wildfires.
The Getchell Fire Station was among a handful of stations from western Washington with qualified firefighters and equipment to send to the southern California fires.
“There are two engines from Gold Bar, one engine from Duvall, and an engine from a Whatcom County fire district being sent,” Chief Travis Hots of the Getchell Fire Department said.
The four firefighters from Getchell included Captain Jeremy Stocker, firefighter and engine driver Jason Kestle, and firefighters Brian Keys and Tyler Bottin.
“Firefighters Kestle and Keys also work for the Lake Stevens Fire Department,” Hots added.
Hots also said that the strike team leader is from the Whatcom County fire district, and that he lead the five engines that headed down to fight the fires; this included the one engine from Getchell.
“A strike team is where you have five similar units like structural engines, and a task force is five dissimilar units,” Hots said.
Getchell has brush engines which are smaller trucks used for brush fires.
“They didn’t ask for our brush engines which are like the F-450’s and F-350’s that carry a small amount of water. The engine we sent to California is a regular fire engine like the one’s you see around town,” Hots said. “All of these firemen that are on the Getchell fire engine are part-time firefighters with District 22 Getchell, and they all wanted to go. This was a volunteer process,”
Even though it was all volunteer, each firefighter needed to have had the necessary skills to fight such a fire.
“We sent people down there that had the appropriate kind of training, and proper qualifications because it is far too dangerous to just send anyone down there for this type of environment,” Hots said. “You have to have a particular fire line rating to go on one of these engines, and the actual officer has to have an even higher level of fire line rating, so that really eliminated a lot of the fire districts in the state even if they wanted to commit their resources to this. It’s a different kind of ball game than structural fires as you can imagine.”
Many of their firefighters were eager to help, but they had to follow the selection process which they currently had in progress.
“We had 12 people in the department that said yes, I can go, and they had to be able to commit to two weeks,” he said.
Honor, plays a large part in volunteering for missions like this says Hots.
“The guys that went down there were very excited to go down there, and potentially help people save their homes, it’s kind of like an honor to them,” Hots said.
The firefighters took only 27 hours to reach their destination and took shifts driving each time they stopped to fill their engines with gas.
“They left Wednesday afternoon around three o’clock and they arrived in the evening hours on Thursday,” Hots stated.
The fire engine gas tanks hold about 50 gallons of gasoline according to Hots because it is not typical that they drive long distances to put out fires when they are local.
“They are almost in Mexico, that’s how far down they are. In fact, when they were arriving at their staging areas, they were within 100 yards of the Mexican-U.S. border, so they are way down there,” Hots commented.
They are in the city of El Cohona, CA, where they set-up their base camp.
“They are assigned to what they call the Harris fire, and historically whoever arrives on the fire scene first gets to name the fire, but I don’t know what they named that fire after,” Hots said.
Working in temperatures of 93 degrees added with the heat of the fire makes for a very hot and exhausting situation in the 84,000 acre blaze.
According to Hots, the Harris fire was 20 percent in containment as of last Friday afternoon.
Hots said that because the men are on a strike team, they are more likely to go into a populated area and assist with any evacuations if it hadn’t been done already, then they will provide structural protection.
“More than likely, the Getchell fire engine will back into a person’s driveway and determine if they can save the structure.”
Once backed into location, the team assesses the situation and determines whether a perimeter can be set-up around the house or structure to save it.
If it is determined possible, they would then begin removing any brush, and flammable objects away from the structure and cut back weeds as well as possibly tearing down wooden structure, like decks attached to the house.
“If it’s determined that a structure is not able to be protected, the team would write it off and move to a location which they feel can be saved,” Hots explained.