Local firefighters back from California | VailDaily.com

Local firefighters back from California

Christine Ina Casillas
NWS ER Fire Cal BH 11-11

“It was smoky all the way from Las Vegas,” said Andy Pohlman, 27, wildland firefighter for the Eagle River Fire Protection District.

Pohlman and Eagle River Fire Protection District wildland firefighters T.J. Meza, 25, and Greg Stewart, 20 – the responding crew – headed west Oct. 30 in wildland engine No. 124 toward the Cedar Fire in San Diego.

“Wildland fires are the weirdest, most unpredictable types of fires,” said Kathy Warren, spokeswoman for the Eagle River Fire Protection District.

“Everything burned’

When they arrived, the entire perimeter of the area was completely black, said T.J. Meza, engine boss.

“Everything burned,” Meza said. “There were signs charred and melted. Guardrails on the road were completely burned away. Big power lines were being hauled away from falling down. The middle of the road – the median of the interstate – was completely destroyed.”

The fire bumped against the towns, Meza said. The outskirts of towns were destroyed, the exteriors burned. But in the middle, some structures were salvageable.

“The cars … there were so many car accidents because of the smoke and chaos,” Meza said, “and the people trying to get out of there in a hurry.”

The 16-hour ride to the fires gave the men time to drive through towns filled with people evacuating. And when they pulled into San Diego’s Gillespie Field incident command post, they said they could see a large column of crimson from the Cedar Fire.

“The fire came on so fast,” Warren said.

Division X-Ray

At the time, the fire had burned more than 522,000 acres, spreading south all the way to Ensenada, Mexico, 60 miles south of the California border.

More than 17 deaths were reported then and more than 1,572 homes had burned in the flames.

“The first thing we heard was be careful out there,” Meza said, “because they had already lost one firefighter.”

Steven Rucker, a 38-year-old fire engineer from the San Francisco suburb of Novato, died Oct. 29 battling one of the fires that ravaged Southern California. He had volunteered to go south and fight the Cedar Fire.

More than 300 fire trucks and about 3,000 firefighters from agencies all over the West Coast, Las Vegas and Phoenix arrived to assist with the fires.

“And there was one from Eagle River,” said Stewart.

Meza added: “Big departments on the West Coast were parked right next to us.”

The Eagle River firefighters were assigned to “Division X-Ray,” an area of the fire where the roads were steep and narrow.

“They knew we had a mobile engine, and they took advantage of us for it – but in a good way,” Meza said.

The engine was small enough to maneuver through the tight, narrow roads and reach areas of the fire that others couldn’t, he said.

“There was gnarly four-wheeling in there,” Pohlman said.

The trio spent eight days in California.

“We didn’t have a shower for eight days,” Meza said.

A cold front

The day they arrived, a cold front moved into the area.

“It was good recovery,” Meza said. “It rained in the morning and at night. All we could do was wait for the weather to change.

“We had the best firefighters in the world there but you can’t stop the fire without the weather.”

However, they weren’t entirely prepared for the cold.

The Eagle River Fire district received a call Oct. 28 from the Grand Junction Air Center, which was acting as the dispatch center for regional fire departments, with a request to send resources to California.

“We had a two-hour notice to pack all of our stuff and get out the door within that time frame,” Meza said.

Pohlman said he was expecting the place to be warm– hot even – because “it’s California.”

But when they stepped outside of the fire truck, they were met with temperatures ranging from 50 to 60 degrees.

Priority list

Despite the weather, the firefighters said it was a humbling experience fighting that fire.

“Everybody wanted to go,” Warren said. “All the guys were clambering into the office, wanting to go.”

And the three were chosen for the journey because of experience and availability, Warren said.

“When the resource order comes in, we have a priority list,” Meza said. “It’s first come first serve based on certain qualifications and availability.”

The men were expected to be deployed for a maximum of 14 days. Some who couldn’t be deployed were on a different shift schedule or couldn’t take that much time off away from home.

“It’s a big commitment,” Meza said. “It’s a 14-day commitment, and you leave under short notice. And the travel days don’t count for work days.”

But for the eight days while they were in California, the crew said it was an “amazing feat.”

“We all got along well, got the job done and worked together,” Meza said.

And they said they weren’t ready to return home.

But they all agreed that they brought back more experience as firefighters and for the department.

“Poison oak – that’s another thing we brought back with us,” Pohlman said.

Christine Ina Casillas can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607 or at ccasillas@vaildaily.com.

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