Local firefighters headed west

Large wildfires across the western US garnered national attention and resources this fall, and several Park Rapids residents went out to battle the blazes.

Large wildfires across the western US garnered national attention and resources this fall, and several Park Rapids residents went out to battle the blazes.

Some firefighters saw a lot of action. Others stayed on hand to help in case situations escalated.

All the firefighters came away with some stories to tell.

Vacations in an inferno

Most people spend their summer vacation time traveling to exotic or relaxing locations.


Emergency medical technician Dan Williams plans other adventures.

Williams chose to spend his two weeks in August and September working 16-hour days at a 48,000-acre fire in Ketchum, ID.

He worked as a single resource medical firefighter on the wildfire, alternating between front-line fire fighting and operating the medical tent for the 2,000 person camp.

"I was kind of the all-around utility guy," said Williams.

Williams said his day began around 5 a.m. when the medical tent opened for daily use.

Medical technicians typically experienced a morning rush as firefighters came in to get patched up for the day's work.

Most of the injuries were fairly minor, Williams said. "There were a lot of foot blisters and sprained ankles," he explained.

But on one occasion, Williams accompanied the evacuation helicopter to treat a fightfighter with seizures and dehydration.


"When you have that many people out there, something like that is bound to happen eventually," he said.

At 7 a.m., Williams would attend the morning briefing given by supervisors and department heads to receive updates on the wildfire and a division assignment.

Williams spent most of the day working on the fire line as well as serving as a communications relay.

On the fire line, Williams used pulaskis, shovels and other hand tools to clear away combustible materials in a 3-foot to 4-foot line.

"Fire needs three things - fuel, oxygen and heat. If you can eliminate one of them, you can eliminate the fire," said Williams.

As a communications relay, Williams positioned himself to relay radio communications between teams separated by mountains.

With his fire line shift over between 6 and 7 p.m., Williams would head back to work at the medical tent until 11.

"Maybe I would work in a shower, if I was lucky," he said.


Then it was off to bed - unless it was his turn for an overnight "barrel shift."

He said, "There was no problem sleeping. That's for sure."

Williams said he rarely felt endangered, but did receive a call to evacuate his location once when a nearby blaze threatened to jump from the ground up into the tree branches.

"You could look up and hear it roaring," said Williams of nearby blazes. "It sounded like a freight train."

Williams said the part of his vacation he valued most was the opportunity to meet and work with fire crews from across the nation. Over the 14 days, he worked with crews from Oregon, Missouri and California.

He said his experience was, "A heck of a lot of fun... wildfire fighting is something I'm going to do until they tell me I can't do it anymore."

California vigilance

Park Rapids Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Forestry employees Steve Bade and Elena Teich traveled to California in October to battle forest fires sweeping across the southern part of the state.


But although they saw smoke, they didn't get to fight a fire.

"We saw one fire as a column of smoke out there," said Bade.

The DNR team traveled to the wildfires at the behest of a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) resource order and spent 13 days on-call at staging areas.

FEMA gave the resource order after about 20 fires in southern California started within a 48-hour period. The Santa Ana winds in the region quickly spread the fires into residential areas.

"With a 100 mile-per-hour wind, you don't have enough equipment to control the fires," said Bade.

Bade headed up a three-person crew for the Park Rapids engine as part of a five-engine strike team. The team also included engines from Zimmerman, Cass Lake, Grand Portage and Carlos-Avery.

As an engine boss, Bade kept track of the schedule for his crew, ensured paperwork was filled out and kept up morale.

They drove 38 hours from Minnesota to a fire-staging area in Chino.


Bade said the staging area, about a half-hour from Los Angeles, housed 125 to 150 fire trucks ready for deployment.

From Chino, they traveled to the Santiago fire staging area. They spent 12-hour days on standby for fires, but were not called out to fight any.

The waiting still involved a high degree of readiness, Bade explained.

"When they give notice, you have three minutes to be ready to go," said Bade.

The DNR crew spent a lot of time by their engine, but managed to train a couple hours each day for the fire, Bade said.

"The fire behavior in California is different than here," said Bade.

Fires in the area were fueled largely by brush. They spread faster but do not require as much monitoring once the flames are extinguished.

After the Santa Ana winds failed to return the next weekend as forecast, Bade and his crew returned to Minnesota.


While Bade and his crew didn't engage in any active firefighting, he said being ready was valuable for the active crews there.

"It's almost tougher to do that than fight the fire," said the 27-year firefighting veteran.

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