By Monday night, 73 firefighters from Montana were expected to have arrived in California to help fight the deadly fires ravaging that state.
The crews from 17 agencies are driving down in 20 engines and will be divided up into four task forces. They’ll stay on site for two weeks, said Jake Ganieany, response and recovery branch manager for the Montana Department of Emergency Services.
“We are happy to help other states in a time of need,” Ganieany said. “We just hope California can get as many resources as they can to fight these fires and keep people safe.”
The Missoula Rural Fire Department deployed six firefighters and two engines to California, joined by 14 firefighters and three engines from the Missoula Fire Department. The city department also sent a chase vehicle to help shuttle equipment and personnel from place to place.
Assistant MFD Chief Brad Davis said the crews sent to California are “highly experienced.”
“We always tell them to go kick ass and be safe,” he said.
Missoula Rural Fire Captain Rob Lubke said the deployed firefighters will be broken down into detail units called strike teams, taking one task at a time. Crews are expected to head back to Montana after 14 days of work on the line in California, where they were expected to arrive Monday night.
California wildland fire crews have always been a helping force in Montana’s fire season, especially so during the 2017 fires that torched the most acres ever burned in a single season in Missoula County.
“This allows our folks to get some experience, help out a neighboring state that’s been up here to help us out many times,” Lubke said.
Lubke said crews are so far en route to the Woolsey Fire near the Los Angeles-Ventura county line, but that could shift just as quickly as the wind changes, with conditions primed this week in California for fires to flare up from incoming gusts.
The death toll in the Camp Fire in Northern California rose to 29 on Monday. In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire had killed two people.
The local crews shipped out under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which allows states to request emergency assistance from other states. The requesting state foots the bill.
Columbus Fire Rescue sent three firefighters and one engine, according to firefighter and paramedic Jake Ellis.
“They’re all experienced wildland guys, too, so that’s why we sent them,” Ellis said.
Red Lodge Fire Rescue is sending six firefighters, two engines and a command vehicle for the strike team leader, who will be in charge of one of the task forces. Fire Chief Tom Kuntz noted that the firefighters who agreed to go would be working over the Thanksgiving holiday.
“It’s something that those people are committed to and dedicated to, and we all think is important,” Kuntz said. “Because, you know, we will be asking for help at some point, and one of the things about Montana is we truly understand the concept of helping your neighbor.”
Ganieany, the DES manager, said California’s request for help came Saturday morning and most crews left Sunday.
Montana sent crews to help fight California fires as recently as August, when the Mendocino Complex Fire was burning. The state also sent sent crews down in December 2017, to fight fires in Southern California.
The current task forces include members of the following agencies:
- Missoula Fire Department.
- Missoula Rural Fire District.
- Butte-Silver Bow Fire Department.
- Bull Lake Rural Fire District.
- Marion Fire Department.
- Corvallis Rural Fire District.
- Evergreen Fire Rescue.
- Bigfork Fire Department.
- Columbus Fire Rescue.
- Red Lodge Fire Rescue.
- Central Valley Fire District.
- Livingston Fire Rescue.
- Big Sky Fire Department.
- Park County Rural Fire District.
- Fisher River Valley Fire Department.
- the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
- the Department of Emergency Services.
The regional Red Cross has also deployed four people so far to California to assist efforts near Sacramento, and spokesman Matt Ochsner said more may be moving out soon from the combined Montana-Idaho region.
“It’s a long haul,” he said. “Even after the fires are put out, then we help out with the long-term recovery process.”
The Montana-Idaho Red Cross has so far spent 70 volunteers since mid-September, dispatching people to Hurricane Florence in North and South Carolina, and Hurricane Michael, which laid waste to much of Florida’s panhandle last month.
Donations to Red Cross can be made at www.redcross.org or by calling 1-800-RED CROSS. A $10 donation can also be delivered by texting the word CAWILDFIRES to 90999.