Weber crews fight blazes across West, train for the worst here
Weber Fire District crews are helping fight two huge blazes in California this month as the local agency plays its part in the West’s defense against unprecedented wildfires.
Capt. Richard Cooper, head of the district’s wildland fire division, said a water tender crew is at the 750,000-acre Dixie Fire and an engine crew is fighting the Monument Fire, a 160,000-acre blaze also in Northern California.
Weber crews have been to Idaho, Montana and Oregon fires earlier this year.
It’s a record year for out-of-state deployments for Utah firefighters, said Jona Whitesides, the operations bureau chief for the Utah Division of Emergency Management.
Utah belongs to the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. States facing emergencies, disasters or special situations can put out a call for help and agencies from other states respond. It’s usually invoked for fires in the West.
“We all have the same kinds of risks and hazards,” Whitesides said, but it’s almost always Utah sending out crews, not teams coming here.
“We’ve been blessed and lucky,” Whitesides said, but the future may offer a different story. In the more populous states, there has been far more building into forests and wild areas. With ever-expanding growth on the Wasatch Front, similar risks will increase, he added.
With encroachment into what firefighters call the wildland-urban interface, “Utah is fairly young, but we’re seeing a big boom in the housing population. We’re kind of in our teenage years.”
Given that prospect, Utah firefighters are gaining vital experience working on California’s monstrous blazes, he said.
“They have been able to bring back that experience, implement an attack strategy, utilize lessons learned,” Whitesides said.
Cooper said the Weber Fire District’s wildland fire division has 24 members, a heavy brush truck, six smaller brush trucks and two water tenders. The district’s newest water tender, possessing 3,200-gallon capacity, is on the front lines of the Dixie Fire this week.
He said deployments are undertaken only if adequate firefighting capacity remains in place at home.
States requesting help end up paying the costs incurred by the out-of-state help. But beyond the fact that the budget load isn’t an issue, the local firefighters would be ready to go in any case.
“More than anything it just goes back to the sense of duty of first-responders,” Whitesides said. His agency, for instance, coordinated sending Utah Highway Patrol troopers to help with security at a national political convention and dispatching medical personnel to Texas during the ebola outbreak several years ago.
“Our guys just love to go and love the challenge and want to help,” Cooper said. “I’ll be amazed that with the smallest fire in Nevada or someplace and my phone will blow up with the team saying, ‘Are we going, are we leaving?'”
On a personal level, Cooper said, it can be hard to leave for a few weeks, sometimes in places without cell service to contact family. “At the same time, we enjoy the satisfaction of saving some homes from a fire or a community from burning to the ground.”
Firefighting dangers are always of central focus, Cooper said, adding that he stresses with crew members that firefighter safety comes first.
“It’s exciting and scary and exhilarating all at the same time,” he said. “You’re dealing with something you can’t control.”