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Local firefighters battle California's wild flames

By JACINDA HOWARD, The Mirror

As Federal Way residents sat riveted to their televisions, watching flames ravish Southern California in late October, four South King Fire and Rescue firefighters helped contain the state’s wildfires.

In response to a precedent-setting call for assistance, South King Fire and Rescue firefighters Allen Crandall, Steve Crews, Jason Lambert and Cpt. Aaron Weeks joined firefighters from Gig Harbor, Key Peninsula, Vashon Island and East Pierce fire departments to form a five-engine, multiple-jurisdiction strike team to aid California firefighters in combatting multiple fires.

Though the SKFR men did not ultimately come face-to-face with the flames, as they had expected, they did their part in putting a stop to the 90,440-acre Harris Fire, in San Diego County near the United States-Mexico border.

A cry for help:

SKFR firefighters were notified at approximately 10 p.m. Oct. 23 that they had been summoned to assist in fighting California’s quick-moving fires.

The next day, Weeks, Crandall, Crews and Lambert, all of whom have certifications to fight wild land fires, found themselves on a fire engine headed to California. The SKFR crew drove 31 hours non-stop, choosing not to spend the night at a hotel, but rather inside the fire engine as it bounced and jolted its way to its destination.

“They are not built for comfort at all,” Weeks said of the fire engine.

The crew knew it was needed in California, he said. The firefighters had departed Federal Way expecting the worst. They prepared to protect homes and battle fires on the front lines in the Lake Arrowhead area, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

“We are always planning for the worst-case scenario,” Weeks said.

Firefighters arrive on scene

What welcomed the crew in California was an ashy mess left by the passing fires in Lake Arrowhead.

On Oct. 26, the firefighters were deployed to San Miguel, near the Mexican border, to extinguish hot spots from the Harris Fire. Hot spots are residential areas in which a fire has burned through but has left smoldering roots and vegetation that could re-ignite.

On the northern border of the Harris Fire, near Jamul, the men relieved California firefighting crews and put in a 24-hour shift that Saturday and a 12-hour shift the following Monday.

“It only takes one start,” said Lambert about the importance of extinguishing hot spots before they start another wildfire.

The team worked in a well-to-do residential neighborhood whose homes were worth millions, Weeks said.

As residents were allowed to return to these homes, they graciously thanked the SKFR team, Crews said. Brownies, cake and praise were offered to the team, he said.

The SKFR team reminded the residents that their local firefighters had done most of the work.

“It turned into more of a mop-up operation than anything else,” Crews said.

A learning experience:

Members of the SKFR team had been deployed in the past to Eastern Washington to assist in fires there, but before this, had never fought fires in another state, Weeks said.

The experience was an opportunity for the men to implement their wild land fire education and witness the fine-tuned, militaristic management system of a large fire-combating operation, Weeks said.

Safety was a main focus and every firefighter knew what his or her job was before facing the fires, he said.

“It’s very interesting being a part of something that huge,” Weeks said.

The team expected to stay in California for two weeks, but returned after nine days. State officials felt there were enough resources to combat the fires and some strike teams were no longer needed, Weeks said.

However, SKFR firefighters would have willingly stayed another week or more, Lambert said.

Despite the lack of any life-altering stories, the experience was still a rush for the SKFR firefighters.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Weeks said. “It’s an adventure.”

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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Extra info:

The fires raging in California are among the worst the state has experienced. They have forced California to seek help from its neighbors. Fire engines from San Francisco and Tijuana were seen by SKFR firefighters, Weeks said. About 150 strike teams were called upon and more than 1,000 California fire engines were utilized to fight the state’s current fires, Lambert said.

California’s willingness to seek assistance beyond its borders could possibly lead to future SKFR deployments to the state, Weeks surmised.

“We were given every indication that they were impressed with us,” he said.

The Harris Fire is now 100 percent contained and residents have been allowed back to their homes. To learn more or view a map of the currently burning and recently extinguished fires in Southern California, visit the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Web site at www.fire.ca.gov/index.php.

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