Major deployment to California fires ends

Siuslaw Valley firefighters, equipment provide assistance on worst ever California fire

Jan. 3, 2018 — Seven firefighters from Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue (SVFR) recently returned home from an extended deployment in California.

The firefighters were part of efforts directed at controlling the largest wildfire in modern California history, the Thomas Fire, in addition to smaller scale incidents at the Creek and Lilac fires.

Two crews from SVFR were deployed to assist in the suppression efforts, along with a Type 1 Structural Engine and a Type 6 Brush Engine.

All seven men made it home safely just before Christmas after having spent two weeks with more than 7,000 other firefighters battling the California blazes.

Captain Jeff Larson was one of the senior members to respond to the callout from the Oregon State Fire Marshal. He recounted the events that led to the deployment.

“Our Ops Chief called me in and said we were going to California. So, we sat down, brainstormed, went down our list and figured out who was qualified to respond. We pulled in Kyle and Colten and told them to get ready to go,” Larson said. “We had 30 minutes to go to our houses and pack and then head back to the station. Then we headed to the South Lane Fire Department in Cottage Grove and met there with other members of Task Force Oregon and then we all drove to the Thomas fire and checked in.”

Firefighter P.J. Crescioni was part of Captain Andy Gray's team and was surprised to be making such a long trip to help fight a fire.

“I never thought I’d be driving a fire truck all the way to LA,” he said. “It was a 22-23 hour drive, and we took turns. We had three different drivers and we drove straight through.”

Larson’s team reported to the main staging area for responders and immediately realized the amount of people involved in the suppression was significant.

“It was a huge camp. There were more than 7,000 people working on that fire,” he said.

The main camp was staged in Ventura County, with a secondary camp at Cachuma Lake, north of Santa Barbara.

According to Larson, “Time management is the hardest part of these deployments. You work a 12-hour shift, but it runs longer because there is a lot of other stuff to do. We have to get our rigs fueled up and get our gear ready. Then we have to get some food and a shower and set up our tent, but they had a great set up for us and the food was really good.”

Gray was the leader of the second team dispatched to California. His team was involved in all three of the California fires.

“California wanted 15 strike teams,” Gray said. “There is a difference between a strike team and a task force. A task force is more versatile and a strike team is more jobs-specific. So, we were pretty much the insurance policy for the local departments.”

Gray’s team went from the Creek Fire in Los Angeles to the Lilac Fire in San Diego, and then back to the Thomas Fire. They assisted with structural protection.

“We bounced around quite a bit, but it worked out that we were able to provide some needed backup for local departments,” Gray said.

Both team leaders said that supporting the California firefighters during this emergency has multiple benefits for SVFR moving forward.

Not only will California firefighters make their way here more readily to assist with emergency situations in Oregon, but the opportunity to work under different fire conditions adds to the experience for local firefighters.

“The fuel here in our fires is completely different than it is in California. The trees and the other debris have an extremely different fire behavior. It moves a lot faster and the winds were crazy and very unpredictable,” Larson said.

Gray agreed.

“Exposure to the different environments and the different fire behaviors was really helpful. The fuel model is different, but not that different, from a windy summer day at the coast with the beach grass, so there are some comparisons there,” he said. “The other thing that was important was the scale of the logistics of the whole effort. So it was a learning experience in a lot of ways.”

In addition, the deployment affected SVFR’s finances.

“Our apparatus also made money for us. We received $100 an hour for the engine and $50 an hour for the Quick Attack (brush engine),” Gray said.

When asked to summarize their time in California, both Gray and Larson said the experience gained by district members and volunteers was valuable from a training perspective, but also from a team building perspective.

“It was a great opportunity to talk with firefighters from other areas, to share common experiences and to build communication among the different organizations,” Larson said.

“SVFR was glad to be able to send the crews to assist the firefighters and continue to build our volunteer ranks to meet such requests, as well as offer uninterrupted quality service,” SVFR Operations Chief Jim Dickerson said. “The strike team leaders sent accolades to our crews for hard work, professionalism and dedication.”

Dickerson characterized the California deployment as successful.

“The seven firefighters that deployed worked a grueling ‘24 on, 24 off’ schedule and worked side by side with many other agencies within the ICS system that helps our community when disaster strikes,” he said. “The experience that crews gain in these deployments further solidifies our training and community preparedness programs.”

To date, the Thomas Fire has burned 281,893 acres and has led to the destruction of 1,063 structures. One firefighter has been killed due to thermal injuries and smoke inhalation.

As of Jan. 1, the California Office of the State Fire Marshall and the U.S. Forest Department reported that 92 percent of the Thomas fire had been contained and personnel on scene had been reduced to 508.

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