Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Back from California

Express Staff Writer

(Clockwise from top left) Eric Demment, Mike Witthar, Reid Black, Richard “Bobby” Williams and Noah Tunney were among nine firefighters from Ketchum, Hailey and Sun Valley fire departments that spent 16 days in California helping fight wild fires. Photo by Willy Cook

After receiving help from around the country in putting down last summer's Castle Rock Fire, members of the Ketchum, Sun Valley and Hailey fire departments were given an opportunity to return the favor.

A total of nine firefighters from Blaine County made the 18-hour bus ride from Jerome to a staging area in Madera, Calif., located near Fresno, for a 16-day stint working on the numerous fires that have put the state in crisis.

"It was great to help out another state," said Ketchum Firefighter Noah Tunney.

Tunney was one in a group of six Ketchum firefighters, including Mike Witthar, Gary Robrahn, Chris Ward, Eric Demment and Richard Williams.

Reid Black and Slater Storey from the Sun Valley Fire Department joined the effort, along with Brandon Rasmussen from the Hailey Fire Department.

In addition, the three departments each sent an engine, transported around 750 miles each way by flatbed trailer.

In Madera, the crews separated, with the Hailey and Sun Valley engines joining forces with firefighters from Wendell and Minidoka, among others, and headed to the Piute Fire near Bakersfield.

However, they were only there for two days before being sent to the Gap Fire near Santa Barbara, where they reunited with the Ketchum engine.

"It definitely helped having our experience from the Castle Rock Fire," Witthar said. "We knew how a Type 1 incident works and found ourselves answering questions from other crews."

The firefighters were not directly fighting the fire, but moving around checking for flare-ups and hot spots.

This included working in avocado and lemon groves, as well as helping hand crews made up of prisoners from the California Department of Corrections, one of the most memorable experiences of the trip for the Blaine County firefighters.

"They were getting $1 per day and were working so hard," Sun Valley's Black said. "They were separated at night, but during the day, there was only one guard and a complete sense of trust."

The combination of crews did present a humorous situation, however, when Gary Robrahn had to wear a different helmet because his orange Ketchum headgear matched the color of the inmates' uniforms.

Despite not being right in the midst of the flames, there was plenty of difficult work to be done in the 12-hour workdays.

"The danger was more from the terrain," said Demment.

This became all the more evident when Ketchum's Ward fell through a hidden hole in the ground, created when the fire passed through and burned out the roots of a tree. While Ward was lucky in that the hole was cold, he encountered another firefighter who received serious burns on his legs from a similar fall.

Demment said that while the trip was fantastic for gaining experience, it also presented frustrations, especially with the possibility of being reassigned every day.

"We never knew where we would be sent or when, because there were so many fires going at once," Demment said. "Not fun, considering it was a day-long process just to move out of one staging area."

However, their work ethic caught the attention of both residents, whose homes the Blaine County firefighters had been assigned to protect, as well as firefighters from other departments.

"The Idaho firefighters as a whole got a lot of compliments—people thought we were just small departments from tiny towns, but we were able to show that we knew what we were doing," Williams said.

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