Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Saving their back yard

Area firefighters sacrifice time, money to protect community

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum Assistant Fire Chief Robbie Englehart is finally finding some time to relax after putting in nearly 20-hour workdays as a structure group branch director during the Castle Rock Fire. Englehart commended the structure protection crews from the Wood River Valley, as well as around Idaho, for their effort over the past two weeks. Photo by Willy Cook

Between the heavy aircraft cruising daringly at tree-top level and hot shot crews rolling through town, it's possible to get distracted from the dedication demonstrated by the local firefighters on the Castle Rock Fire.

Mat Filoon, a senior engineer and paramedic for the Ketchum Fire Department, serves as an apt reminder of what might have gone overlooked. Along with his wife and three-week-old twins, Filoon was evacuated first from his house on Board Ranch, then again from a friend's house in East Fork. While these adverse circumstances would be enough to give most an apoplectic fit, Filoon somehow managed to work in 16-hour days to protect any homes from being reduced to ash like the surrounding hillsides.

"Mat definitely had it the worst," Senior Engineer Don Nurge said during a recent interview. "But everyone on the fire has a hard-luck story."

According to Nurge, 112 firefighters from the Ketchum, Sun Valley, Wood River Fire & Rescue, and Hailey fire departments, many of whom are paid on-call volunteers, spent the majority of the past two weeks away from family and forgoing higher wages to do their part during the incident.

"The pay isn't why people are here," said Filoon, who's also the treasurer for the Ketchum and Sun Valley Volunteer Firefighter Association. "Everyone loves what they do and was out there at the drop of the hat."

Ketchum Fire Chief Mike Elle echoed this appreciation for the effort put forth by his volunteers and added a special thanks to the numerous employers throughout the Wood River Valley who didn't hesitate to give their employees time off to fight the fire.

"It was close enough for them to see the smoke and know the implications," Nurge said of business owners and their support for the volunteers.

While most business owners and residents could see and smell the smoke, they were kept a safe distance from the danger. Filoon, on the other hand, was right in the midst of the action as the fire headed south then east, threatening homes at the end of Greenhorn Gulch Road.

"The flames were within 20 yards from the houses," said Filoon, who had a front-row seat for suppression efforts of the helicopters and airplanes. "It was like watching an aerial orchestra."

Ketchum Assistant Fire Chief Robbie Englehart added that a three-man structure protection crew out of Star, Idaho, was responsible for saving the Lowe residence from a wall of flame headed straight for the house.

"Those guys did a great job and held their ground," Englehart said.

Englehart served as a structure group branch director during the incident, a role which saw him in charge of 65 to 70 engines to protect homes in Warm Springs, Greenhorn Gulch, Adams Gulch, Hulen Meadows and Fox Creek, and on top of Bald Mountain.

"This summer has been good practice, with the fires at Trail Creek and Indian Creek, but we were just building up to the big event," said Englehart, who rewarded crews that had performed exceptionally with protective goggles and glasses donated by Ketchum-based eyewear company ESS.

Englehart, who received much-needed organizing and communications help from engineer Annie Stout and Ron Parsons, a retired captain, said that if there had been strong easterly winds while the fire was raging near Greenhorn, they could have experienced serious trouble with spot fires in East Fork.

Fortunately for Englehart, he had the resources necessary to cover the homes within his sphere of responsibility.

"It was truly wonderful to see all the departments in the Wood River Valley, along with the crews from around the state and country, working together as one team," Englehart said, adding that essential work was done by the different local departments.

Englehart said without Hailey in Fox Creek, Sun Valley in Adams Gulch and Hulen Meadows, and Wood River Fire & Rescue in Warm Springs, the situation would have been much worse.

"Robbie did incredibly well for the amount of pressure he was facing and the responsibilities I put on him," said Chief Elle of his assistant chief's ability to coordinate the efforts of all the different crews. "We drill and train annually, but this was on a scale we never imagined. We accomplished a pretty gigantic mission."

That mission included crews working somewhere between 14 and 16 hours a day, both day and night.

"We're accustomed to dealing with structure fires where you have to take action immediately," said Rick Robertson, who, like Parsons, is a retired firefighter still volunteering with the department. "We had to learn to just let it go and be prepared if things go wrong. Fortunately they didn't."

Both Robertson and Englehart were sure to emphasize the experience and lessons learned both from the incident and from the other crews that came in to help fight it.

"Everyone will walk away with better knowledge," Englehart said.

Chief Elle hopes that this knowledge will extend to the general populace as well.

"People need to realize that fire season is far from over and that it will continue to be unsafe to go in those affected areas for some time," Elle said, adding that people should consider any place where the ground has been burned as off limits. "Our firefighters are tired. They don't need people out there causing even more problems."

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