Local fires crew head to California | VailDaily.com

Local fires crew head to California

Christine Ina Casillas
Special to the DailyT.J. Mezza, Andy Pohlman and Greg Stewart, the responding crew, headed west Wednesday toward the Cedar Fire in San Diego.

Mandatory evacuations and a series of deaths from an onslaught of wildland fires in Southern California has mobilized fire crews in the Eagle Valley and surrounding region.

Three firefighters and an engine from the Avon-based Eagle River Fire Protection District were recruited Tuesday to help in what could be one of the worst disasters in California’s recent history.

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

The trio will be in California for 14 days, said Kathy Warren, spokeswoman for the fire district. But the crew will not receive their assignments until they arrive tonight at the San Diego Gillespie field incident command post.

“We don’t know if they’re going to be doing structure protection or be on the line for wildland fires,” Warren said. “But they will be there for a maximum of 14 days only. They can’t stay any longer because nobody wants them to get burned out.

“But if we have to send a fresh crew out when they return, we’re prepared to do it,” she said.

If assigned to “structure protection,” the crews will be defending homes and other buildings against the uncontrolled flames.

If a fresh crew is needed to head back to fight the fires, Warren said, the current crew will leave their fire truck in California.

The Eagle River Fire district has assisted in fighting fires all over the West, mainly in states that border Colorado, but the district has never journeyed to California until now.

“This is the biggest fire where we’ve had to send crew out of state,” she said. “We’ve never had to send crew to California. This is the first time we’ve deployed to California, and it’s because of the scope of the fire.”

Tuesday afternoon, more than 522,000 acres burned because of the fires, spreading south all the way to Ensenada, Mexico, 60 miles south of the California border. More than 17 deaths were reported and more than 1,572 homes had burned in the flames.

“We are glad we could help firefighters in California,” said Eagle River Fire Chief Charlie Moore. “We have enough resources at Eagle River Fire to be able to send this crew and not have the deployment impact service or staffing for the district.

The fire in California is unprecidented. Hopefully, we’ll get moisture here soon,” Moore said.

The fire grew so big so fast that California had to extend its geographical request for more bodies and more equipment to states beyond its border, Warren said.

“They’re dealing with seven separate fires,” she said. “When the winds get it, we have to back out, and we don’t want to do that. We want to stand back and attack at a different angle.”

As reported in the Aspen Times, crews from both the Aspen and Basalt fire departments have been sent to Southern California.

“This stuff is in our blood,” Aspen Deputy Fire Chief Orrin Moon told the Aspen Times. “It’s a rush for these guys to go meet different people from different departments while being a service to our colleagues.”

But other fire districts in the area say they don’t have the resources to send a crew to help.

The Vail Fire Department has enough crew but four of their firefighters are waiting on standby until they receive word for more assistance.

“It’s hard for the guys to arrange their schedule to be gone up to three weeks,” said Vail Fire Chief John Gulick. “If they do need more help, it’ll be tough to get the schedule free for that long. It’s hard on our personnel here and it’s hard for the firemen to leave their families on a moment’s notice for that length of time.”

The Carbondale Volunteer Fire Department Wednesday was in the process of determining if it had enough personnel to respond, and officials with the Glenwood Springs Volunteer Fire Department said it didn’t have enough volunteers to send at all.

“A lot of times, they just need manpower,” Warren said. “But this fire is so huge they need (equipment), as well.”

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

Warren compared the California fires to the Hayman Fire, which burned south of Denver in the summer of 2002 and became the largest blaze in the state’s history.

“The Hayman Fire was big, but it was nowhere near as massive as the fire in California,” Warren said. “This fire is huge. You wouldn’t believe what goes on to keep a handle on things.”

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

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