Franklin County firefighters describe experience battling forest fire in Washington state

Last modified: Saturday, August 16, 2014
DEERFIELD — Four wildland firefighters from southern Franklin County have returned from the West Coast, where they have been part of a crew that battled a massive forest fire outside Leavenworth, Washington.

Jesse Hanacek of Whately, Greg Whittier and Jeffrey Belanger of Deerfield, and Robert Armstrong of Conway were deployed alongside a group of 16 other state and municipal firefighters from across Massachusetts to help battle the wildfires that have torched nearly 900,000 acres across two states over the last few weeks.

The crew, which consisted of 14 state and six municipal firefighters, was assembled in response to a request Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Jack Murray received from the U.S. Forest Service and the Northeastern Interagency Coordination Center of Bolton, Maine.

After meeting up with additional crews from New Hampshire, New York, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the White Mountain National Forest, the group flew out of Manchester (N.H.) Airport on July 26.

When they arrived on the West Coast, the firefighters battled a series of three fires known as the Chiwaukum Complex, which stretches across 12,320 acres outside Leavenworth.

According to the Department of Conservation and Recreation, fire activity increased throughout the month of July in the Northwest and the northern Rockies. Hot and dry weather patterns, very low fuel moistures and numerous scattered dry thunderstorms produced hundreds of lightning strikes, which resulted in extreme fire danger throughout the regions.

The Massachusetts crew was assigned to Division AA on the northwest part of the fire, where they helped improve fire lines and clear hot areas along the entire division, ultimately preventing the fire from spreading farther to the north.

The crew spent two weeks working directly on the fire line nearly 16 hours per day to try to suppress or contain the blaze by building fire breaks — areas where organic matter that could serve as fuel for the fire is cleared away by hand to prevent the flames from advancing — securing the perimeter of the fire, and protecting any structures that may stand in the fire’s path.

“Overall, it was a good trip,” said Hanacek. “We’ve had ones that are a little more exciting, and ones that were a lot less. This one had a good range of assignments within the main assignment itself, especially for the three new guys who got to see the whole range of what we do.”

Most of that time, Hanacek said, the crew held a ridge that served as a border between private land and the wilderness, where the crews were attempting to direct the fire. From there, they served as radio relay operators, passing information to other crews as the fire changed.

The fire “would kind of make runs up the ridge, and we’d make calls to the helicopters to help guide them in and drop water,” said Hanacek.

The rest of the time, the crew executed “seek and destroy” missions in which they searched for spot fires where embers from the main fire may have blown away and landed, starting up other fires. Hanacek said fires like that can pose a threat to the firefighters by ambushing them from behind.

“We’d knock them down and get them out to make that area secure,” he said. “We did have one of those one day where we were able to get a crew down there, and they were able to cut some hot line around it, get a water drop in there and put it to bed pretty quickly.”

While out in the field, the firefighters ate and slept at a main base camp that had been set up at a local fishery, which provided food and showers. According to Hanacek, most times they are stationed at “spike camps” around the edges of the fire, where there are usually no showers, and the food consists mainly of military-style field rations.

According to Hanacek and the other firefighters, the thanks they received from the local residents whose homes and livelihoods were threatened by the blaze was the best part of the trip.

“It’s a little different on a woodlands fire than a structure fire. The opportunity to save an actual life isn’t as prevalent, but it’s still the same — saving property, lives and natural resources — so to get that thanks from people is very rewarding,” Hanacek said.

Whittier recounted driving through Leavenworth or along nearby Route 2 and seeing signs hung on utility poles and in people’s driveways, thanking them for their service and wishing them safety.

“It was very rewarding seeing all those signs en route to the camp and to and from the fire,” he said. “They certainly show the appreciation for us taking 16 to 18 days away from home to come out there. It certainly helped.”

Dave Celino, the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s chief fire warden, said the evaluations that the firefighters received from the local crews spoke to the impression they made.

“It’s phenomenal to see them get very high evaluations from the emergency management authorities out there,” Celino said. “We’re very proud of these folks going out there and representing Massachusetts, and that’s one of the offshoots of having a New England fire crew out there. This may be the first time a Northwestern crew works with a Northeastern crew, and it’s very important they represent us to the best that they can, and they absolutely did.”

Celino said he was also glad all of the firefighters returned without injury. “That’s really our number one objective out there,” he said.

“I am extremely proud of the firefighters who helped our friends and partners in the Pacific Northwest,” Murray said in a press release. “These men and women have done great work on behalf of the commonwealth and we welcome them home after a job well done.”

As part of the mutual aid agreement that allows the firefighters to help in other states, the state that requested the help pays all of the out-of-state crew’s expenses, including salary, lodging, transportation and food.