Summit County firefighters head west as California is set ablaze
Dan Ross returned to Summit County after fighting two fires spanning tens of thousands of acres in California. The Lake Dillon firefighter led a crew of 18 through the Rough Fire, the largest fire currently burning in that state, before returning to help fight one of the Gasquet Complex fires just a week later.
Ross is one of many local firefighters deployed West with the assistance of federal funds. In the last two months, several Lake Dillon, Copper Mountain and Red, White & Blue firefighters have been deployed to California, Washington and Oregon to help fight large wildfires that have burned continually throughout the summer.
Ross said that many of the fires have been naturally caused, as the two he fought were triggered by a lightning strike igniting the drought-stricken vegetation.
“Everything’s so dry out there,” he said. “That’s why they have so many fires.”
In the Rough
Deployed for two weeks to the Rough Fire, Ross led a crew of 18 locals, who worked nearby and were recruited in times of emergency.
To create a fire line, the crews would start clearing trees and undergrowth upwind of the fire, creating a space two and a half times wider than the flames to slow the advance of the blaze.
“The hand crew I had was top notch. … They were some of the hardest workers I’ve ever worked with,” Ross said. “You’ve got guys who have been on fires for 20 years.”
The crew cut six miles of lines in the steep terrain near Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. Ross would scout the terrain ahead of time to find a safe place for the crew to work, marking the path with pink flags. As they made their way through, he followed behind the last of them.
“You never leave your guys behind,” he said.
Throughout the 14 days of grueling work, he said his hand crew would work from 5 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. every day. Food and water were airlifted down to camp, though they were stuck without a shower. Occasionally, the work brought a few surprises.
“There was a pretty big rattlesnake right in our work area, and it was pretty upset,” Ross remembered. He added that the crew killed the snake, skinned it, seasoned it and cooked a meal.
While the fire started at just 400 acres, days later, strong winds blew hot embers across the 40-foot fire line, quickly igniting the dry brush on the other side.
“It burned very hot and very fast,” Ross said. “Everything came together, the wind, terrain and dry fuels. … It was the worst case scenario they had out there.”
As the blaze moved down the drainage, crews managed to evacuate 3,000 people in less than two hours. As of today, the fire is burning at 139,133 acres, the largest active fire in the state.
Ross’ second deployment to the Gasquet complex started on a different note. Working with Lake Dillon firefighters, he said the small crew established lines far outside of the location of the blaze, where a lightning strike had caught fire to a mixture of wilderness and sacred tribal lands. Since the fire was in a protected area and was naturally caused, they had no choice but to wait for the fire to approach.
For the first three days, firefighters waded across a river in the dark to extinguish a spot fire outside of the wilderness area. However, an encounter with an irate bear turned them back around.
“I heard the branches break and heard a bear huff at us, and we hurried down the hill,” Ross recounted.
Since then, the fires have shrunk to 30,000 acres and are 45 percent contained. He said the remaining fire is within the bounds of wilderness area.
“It’s kind of a waiting game at this point,” he said.
Trained and ready
Not only do the deployments serve as an opportunity to serve other districts, but they also provide crucial on-the-ground training, as they are funded in full by the federal government.
“It’s kind of a give-and-take,” Ross said. “Every area no matter where you’re at, is gonna need help. Sooner or later, Summit County will need that support, as well.”
With several crews returning for the fall season, Summit’s fire danger has spiked from “moderate” to “high” in the past week, as plants dry out before the first winter frost.
“It is common. We usually see the fire danger go up right before we hit freeze,” said Jay Nelson, deputy chief with Red, White & Blue Fire. However, he noted that some of the county’s largest fires have taken place during the fall, such as the Ophir Mountain Fire in 2005.
Despite these concerns, firefighters and paramedics are still heading out West to fight flames, as California’s fire season is not yet halfway finished. Over the weekend, Lake Dillon Fire and Copper Mountain Fire deployed three-person crews to the Valley Fire near Cobb, California, which has already destroyed more than 400 homes and burned 61,000 acres since it caught on Saturday.
Copper Mountain captain Ryan Cole, engineer Mark Nielsen and lieutenant Charlie Johnson will join 1,255 firefighters on-scene, as well as Lake Dillon Fire engineer Dennis Jackson, engineer Bob Corcoran and firefighter Case Byl.
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