Six Eastside Fire and Rescue firefighters were summoned south to battle fires. Not the kind of blazes that originate from within homes and businesses, but California wildland fires that have pushed neighborhoods to evacuate and destroyed properties on the coast.
“It’s challenging,” said Capt. Jordan Simmonds by phone, as the group caravaned south. “It’s sad to see people lose their homes. We also know there are times where we can make a difference and times nature is a pretty unstoppable force. We do the best we can with the resources we have.”
They were joined by responders from Bothell, Duvall, Seattle, and Valley Regional fire departments. Combined, the Wildland Engine Strike Team has 19 personnel who agreed to commute down after receiving a call from California state officials who said they need the help.
The local crew is one strike team of several others requested by the Golden State. According to state Emergency Management, seven taskforces of firefighters from 31 different fire departments from all areas of the state are heading to California to battle fires. Others could be requested soon and follow suit.
The strike team met at 6 a.m. on Oct. 28 in Olympia, before departing for the 746-mile trip to Sonoma County, where the Kincade fire has put people on evacuation warning.
The fire began on Oct. 23, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. About 15 percent of the estimated 75,415 acres had been contained, as of Tuesday.
“Sometimes (people) lose their home,” Simmonds said. “The silver lining is that we’re able to give them time to escape with their lives.”
Eastside Fire and Rescue is leading this deployment with strike team leader Jeff Storey and a “Type-3” engine, which typically comes equipped with four-wheel drive in order to navigate rough terrains. He’s joined by strike team leader trainee Capt. Dave Augenstein, Battalion Chief Glenn Huffman, Capt. Jordan Simmonds and firefighters Mike Webb and Rudy Case.
Firefighters John Deaver, Cody Barwell and Hugh Moag hail from the Bothell department.
This is not the first California rodeo for those headed south. Storey has been on California wildfire calls four times. And his trainee, Augenstein, was a career firefighter there for eight years before coming to Eastside. But he hasn’t been back on a mobilization since.
For about 30 years the Eastside wildland team has been active. But just last year, Eastside altered the way they train for the wildland blazes. Instead of a core group of fire staff having the needed red card certification to journey out on mobilization, the department has trained nearly every member in the fundamentals of battling a fire in the woods.
Eastside Capt. Steve Johnson said more than 90 percent of fire fighters were certified.
The change was driven by an increase in the number of fires and threat to the increasing number of homes built near wildlands in our area, Simmonds said.
“The amount and intensity has increased,” Simmonds said. “There’s been more of an issue identified and the need to be more capable of managing those types of fires.”
As they traveled, the group tried to gather as much information on the fires as possible, including what conditions will play into the blaze. They paid special attention to the winds. They’ve prepared for what’s to come.
Crews like will work 12- to 24-hour shifts for two weeks, after arriving at the destination where the responders could best be put to use. But they have no idea how long they’ll be there. When states pull resources, Simmonds said they want to hold on to them.
Having responded to calls like this before, Simmonds said his family — including his four children that range from 8 to 14 in age — are aware of the dangers that come with the task. If there’s cellphone reception, team members likely will call their families at night. Simmonds has been on fires where calling home wasn’t always possible, and instead there was no communication for days, sometimes weeks.
“Our families are prepared for that,” he said. “They know if they haven’t heard from us, we’re okay.”
After all, he added, they’ve trained for it.