Deployed in California, Summit Fire & EMS crew sharpens skills battling blaze against backdrop of Tropical Storm Hilary

On deployments such as these, Summit Fire & EMS crews get the real-life experience required to achieve more specialized firefighting qualifications

Hannah Ohlson/Courtesy photo
A Summit Fire & EMS firefighter battles a blaze while deployed in California in August 2023.
Hannah Ohlson/Courtesy photo

Even as the wildfire season in Summit County has remained calm thus far, Summit Fire & EMS firefighters are gaining real-world experience fighting fires elsewhere in the West.

A three-person crew — the second of three consecutive crews that Summit Fire & EMS will deploy this month — recently battled a wildfire near California’s southern border, amid 60 mph winds as Tropical Storm Hilary pushed into the state.

“We are committed to Southern California right now,” Summit Fire & EMS wildland specialist Hannah Ohlson said in a phone interview Thursday, Aug. 24 — day 13 of a 14-day deployment. “Right now we can be kind of passed around the region as deemed necessary.”

Ohlson said her and the other two crew members — fire medic Tony Marzo and firefighter EMT Dan Breyer — arrived at the Cleveland National Forest Palomar Ranger District in response to a request for aid.

The National Forest had several staffed engines elsewhere in the state and, having determined the local fire danger was high, requested supplementary resources be staged at the Palomar Ranger District to make fire response faster should one break out, Ohlson said.

The Summit Fire & EMS crew worked alongside other firefighters in the area on a station project, work on the forestland and a training deploying hose lays amid 90-degree temperatures, she said.

After a few days in the Cleveland National Forest, the crew got called to the Coyote Fire on Aug. 17. The blaze consumed 466 acres near the border with Mexico and destroyed two structures but has since been contained, according to Cal Fire

Summit Fire & EMS firefighter EMT Dan Breyer carries hoses while deployed in California in August 2023.
Hannah Ohlson/Courtesy photo

The Summit Fire & EMS crew battled the blaze for three days before Tropical Storm Hilary made landfall along the California coast, Ohlson said. The day before the storm made landfall, outflow winds reached at least 60 mph, she said.

“You don’t have to know much about wildfires to know that wind speed is a really big deal,” Ohlson said.

While the federal government staffs seasonal, full-time wildland fire crews of 20-25 firefighters known as Hotshots to battle blazes in the U.S., it also maintains a large network of local firefighters from across the country who can supplement the Hotshot crews, Summit Fire & EMS spokesperson Steve Lipsher said.

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The federal government reimburses local agencies, like Summit Fire & EMS, for the deployment costs and also pays for overtime pay to backfill the openings left open when those agencies deploy firefighters to help in other parts of the country, Lipsher said. So, local taxes aren’t affected by such deployments, he said.

“When you’re looking at hundreds, thousands of small fire departments across the country, they really supplement those standing full-time firefighters that are on the ground,” Lipsher said. “The whole thing is to make the best use of the people who are available and who have the skills and training needed to address something like a fire. It’s all scalable. They ramp up, they ramp down.”

While the work is exhausting, the experience Summit Fire & EMS firefighters gain on these deployments can be invaluable, Lipsher said, since deployments can also help firefighters build up their credentials for more specialized roles.

To become a sawyer using chainsaws to cut down trees, work as an engine boss in charge of a crew, or provide tactical ground support for helicopters, Lipsher said firefighters not only have to complete a simulated training but must also be a “trainee” in the field.

“With these big fires, they employ some pretty interesting tactics,” Lipsher said. “Quite frankly, they’re doing things we can simulate in our training but you can’t actually experience until you’re fighting a real wildfire.”

From the fatigue of working consecutive 8-10 hour days to intense smoke conditions, the tactics of protecting structures during big fires and the dynamics of workings as part of a multi-agency response, so many of the realities of firefighting can’t be simulated, Lipsher said.

Hannah Ohlson/Courtesy photo
A Summit Fire & EMS firefighter battles a blaze while deployed in California in August 2023.
Hannah Ohlson/Courtesy photo

The Coyote Fire — with strong winds pushing in from the tropical storm — proved to be one of those experiences where the skills can only really be learned in the field, Ohlson said.

“The plan for that shaped up pretty quickly, it was implemented very quickly and we really had to be on our toes in terms of the basics of our firefighting practices,” Ohlson said. “Are we in a safe place? Can we complete this operation safely? If it doesn’t go safely do we have contingency plans? it was a fast paced operation.”

After battling the Coyote Fire, Ohlson said the Summit Fire & EMS crew was called to the Plant Fire in the Los Padres National Forest, which as of Aug. 19, had reached 5,400 acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service. For three days the crew battled the Plant Fire, before returning to the Cleveland National Forest where they have been stationed since, she said.

Throughout the deployment, Ohlson noted that she got the experience she needed for an additional qualification while also helping Marzo work toward a faller qualification — assisting with sawing operations in the field.

“The tricky thing about it is you can take the class — he took the chainsaw class he needed — but until he has the opportunity in the real world to practice it, he doesn’t get the qualification,” Ohlson said. “If he was home at the medic unit like he usually is, he wouldn’t get to practice cutting down trees.”

As his trainer, Ohlson helped Marzo identify a burning tree that he had to safely fell. The experience, “got him out of his comfort zone,” she said, “and he did great.”

Hannah Ohlson/Courtesy photo
Summit Fire & EMS fire medic Tony Marzo works from the back of a fire engine while deployed in California in August 2023.
Hannah Ohlson/Courtesy photo

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