Local firefighters work outside state for experience
EAGLE – It’s not whether a large fire will occur in the Eagle River Valley – it’s when. When that does happen, time spent fighting fires in other regions will help firefighters more effectively fight one here, said Deputy Chief Chris Blankenship of the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District. “The benefit goes back to our community where we live,” Blankenship said in a telephone interview from north Florida. Blankenship and two others from Greater Eagle Fire have been working 17-hour days in Florida to fight the Bugaboo Scrub Fire, he said. For six years, the fire department has fought fires outside its jurisdiction in places such as Montana, Wyoming and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. During large fires, local resources tire and reinforcements are needed from other departments, Chief Jon Asper said. Firefighters on “resource assignments” work as many as 14 consecutive days, he said.
The Florida fire was 90 percent contained Sunday after it burned 121,350 acres and forced 725 people to evacuate their homes at one time, according to reports.Greater Eagle Fire got a call from its regional dispatch center asking whether it could commit a crew and a “brush truck,” or a firetruck, May 9. The three firefighters left that day and began work May 12.Not counting travel to the fire, the firefighters are working 12-hour days to contain the fire amid alligators, snakes, turkeys and bears fleeing the burning swamp, Blankenship said. The men have been working in a “hand crew,” which feels the ground with bare hands and sprays it with water to make sure the fire cannot jump to an unburned area, Blankenship said. Asper called Blankenship and the other two men “calm and cool” professionals, but he still worries about his men’s safety, he said.
“Fire departments are a big family, they are,” Asper said. “It’s like having your brothers and sisters out fighting.” Blankenship acknowledged that the work can be dangerous even with lookouts posted to watch changes in the fire’s movement. For instance, a gust of wind could cause a burning tree to fall on someone trying to remove it, he said. Fighting a fire in Florida is different because of the weather, fuel and geography, but the strict management hierarchy and organizational structure remains the same.Experience working in that environment will help when some of the same people come to help fight Colorado wildland fires, Blankenship said. “We know how their system works and what they’re going to do, so we’re prepared to work with them,” he said.
The U.S. Forest Service is paying for the firefighters’ meals and lodging in a hotel near the fire. Greater Eagle Fire will break almost even on the costs of the trip, Asper said.The department has an adequate number of workers and volunteers if an emergency occurs at home, he said. It still has eight trucks, including a truck with a 4,000-gallon water tank. Another local fire crew was deployed to the South recently. The Eagle River Fire Protection District sent a brush truck and firefighters to Alabama to fight wildland fires. “It is a great way to give our personnel the experience on a large incident before it happens here,” Division Chief John Wilson said. Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.