Eagle County firefighters return home for the holidays after battling California wildfires
GYPSUM — On Christmas Day, local firefighters Patrick McGann, Hugh Fairfield-Smith and Damian Trow are celebrating Christmas with their families, but after their experiences during the past three weeks, the trio is acutely aware of how lucky they are to have places to come home to.
Thousands of California residents are homeless this Christmas after 2017’s devastating fires. Earlier this fall, fires torched thousands of acres in northern California, and in early December, a series of fires ignited in the southern regions of the state. As of Saturday, Dec. 23, the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties was declared the largest fire in California history after burning 273,400 acres and destroying 1,065 structures. The fire was listed as 70 percent contained on Christmas Eve.
On Friday, Dec. 22, McGann, Fairfield-Smith and Trow returned from a 16-day assignment to southern California. They were among the 2,512 firefighters and 116 engines battling the blazes.
McGann and Trow, from the Gypsum fire department, and Fairfield-Smith, from the Greater Eagle fire department, ended up working so far from home because of the scope of the southern California emergency and a nationwide network.
“In times of need, when local agencies cannot handle the situation, it goes out to the national dispatch center,” McGann said.
When the call came for Colorado agencies, the local firefighters took off in one of Gypsum fire’s brush trucks for a 14-day assignment. The crew was originally sent to the Lilac Fire near San Diego. That fire burned 1,064 acres and destroyed 280 structures. It is currently contained.
They were then dispatched to help at the Thomas Fire.
“This was hands down the largest fire I have ever been to,” Fairfield-Smith said.
Rolling up to a blaze of that magnitude can be daunting, the firefighters noted. They were tasked to areas where the fire had already burned to make sure the flames were totally extinguished.
“It is our job to be as thorough as possible,” Fairfield-Smith said. “We do it bit by bit, and eventually little victories become big victories.”
But before they could chalk up some gains at the fire scene, the local men were staggered by the fire’s path.
“We drove through these neighborhoods where it was just total destruction on both sides of the road,” McGann said.
Bringing out the best
Saying that tragedy brings out the best in people has become a cliche, but the local firefighters saw that statement in practice in California.
“It is amazing how people come together,” Fairfield-Smith said.
The team witnessed generosity on a massive scale in the community of Ojai, where donations were collected and distributed from a parking lot area.
“The fire had gone through there six days previously, and this parking lot looked like a Target,” Fairfield-Smith said. “It’s nice to know that even in hard times, people look out for one another.”
While stationed on the fire, the crew stayed focused on the work before them. But they weren’t immune to the personal tragedy all around.
“People were crying because we saved their homes and people were crying because they lost everything,” Fairfield-Smith said.
While their deployment ended after two weeks, on the drive home the trio passed other fire engines headed west. Those crews are working Christmas Day.
“There will be work for a long time,” Fairfield-Smith said. “We are just thankful we are going to be able to spend Christmas with our families.”
In that spirit, the local team offered a shoutout to the crews who are now at work in California and to the personnel in Eagle and Gypsum who had to work extra hours while they were at the Thomas Fire. They also thanked their own families, who understand the nature of firefighting and how responding to an emergency doesn’t stop during December.
“They thought we would be home for the holiday season, and then this happened,” Fairfield-Smith said.
Home for the holidays
Driving back into Eagle County after two weeks in fire-ravaged California was a bit jarring for the trio.
“We went from burned palm trees to Christmas trees,” McGann said. “This is the first Christmas I have had off in two years.”
But for all three, the time off will be short-lived. They are all slated to begin their next shifts at their home fire departments on Tuesday, Dec. 26.
The graduates of Vail Mountain School’s class of 2019 will be off to far-flung destinations next fall, set to enter college in one of 16 different states or explore the world on a gap year. One grad is even attending college in Canada.