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Local firefighters return from western wildfire assignments

by Tianna Grosch

Six members of the Northern Bucks Wildland Fire Crew (NBWFC) traveled this summer to Northern California (NorCal), Idaho, and Montana to fight rampant wildfires plaguing those states.

“This was a special year for fires out west,” said Greg Reese, co-founder of NBWFC. “For me, this was my second trip and a great opportunity to work on an engine and increase my experience.”

Each member was assigned to three different Pennsylvania crews and to one of the state’s engines. Each assignment was different, from being deployed on an engine to helping contain thousands of acres of wildland fires across the western United States.

Ryan Hunsicker, Superintendent of NBWFC, said, “Typically five to 10 of our members are sent on federal deployment to another state at least once a year, sometimes multiple times a year.”

NBWFC is a non-profit organization established under PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry to provide mutual aid and rapid mobilization for response to any natural or man-made disasters, such as wildfire emergencies like the ones out west. NBWFC also helps with prescribed burns in their district.

“Every trip has great chances to test your abilities,” Greg described. “The experience you gain each time helps when you feel out of your comfort zone.”

NBWFC is based in Quakertown with close to 50 members from the South Eastern region of Pennsylvania, and covers over nine counties in the Southeast.

Crewmembers have many different specialties and skills – from crew/squad bosses to fire wardens, sawyers (who carry chainsaws and take down trees and brush), emergency medical technicians, and “ground pounders” (who make a fire line to keep the fire from spreading).

“To be able to fight wildfires, you have to be open-minded, flexible, and manage your expectations,” Greg said. “Every fire, every incident, every situation is different.”

After spending over two weeks traveling across the country, camping out in fields, taking night shifts, trekking through rough terrain and up near-vertical inclines, cutting down tall hazard trees, doing fuel reduction work, and creating fire lines to contain and keep the fire from spreading, multiple crews on each incident successfully helped contain these fires and saved multiple communities.

There’s no way to expect what you’ll find when going out to combat a wildfire, and nothing compares to that first glimpse of rogue fire spreading through the trees.

Erik Stefferud, a squad boss for NBWFC and member of the sixth PA crew to be dispatched this summer, describes the first night in NorCal walking into a spot fire, totaling just under three acres, over the range from the main body of fire.

“It was pure excitement with a twinge of nerves,” Erik said. “Every first fire can make the hair on your neck stand up, but the confidence I had in my leadership kept my nerves at bay and gave me the opportunity to focus on the work ahead. I’ve spent years of training and preparation and traveled cross country to do this job – I was ready for it.”

In some cases, the crew was one of the first on site of the burning fires, going out on “IA”, or initial attack. Initial attack is reserved for those crews who have the qualifications to go into an area unseen, physical capability of carrying all the necessary equipment, to size up the situation before arriving, and begin containing the fire in some of the most remote regions of the U.S. such as the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in NorCal, Hell’s Canyon in Idaho, and Bitterroot Mountain Range in Montana.

“Safety is always our first priority,” Greg said. “One of the most valuable skills you can have is situational awareness – it’s so important to know what’s going on around you at all times.”

Among the NBWFC members who have gone out to fight these western fires and since returned home safely are Stefferud, Reese, Jason Mirandi, Chris Mast, Jean Pfister, and Bradley Prater.

Firefighters must be in tip-top physical shape in order to climb up mountains with their heavy gear, lunch, water, and tools – often weighing over 30 pounds.

Members are expected to be able to work a 16-hour day where there may be no outside water resource. This means everything you may need for an entire day must be carried with you from first thing that morning.

“I go out there for fun, but it’s about more than that – you save people’s livelihoods and their appreciation is what really makes it worthwhile,” said Erik. “You really start to feel the achievement. Even the stewardess thanked us and we were applauded on the plane ride home.”

If you’re interested in joining this respectable crew, you must pass a number of physical fitness tests and training courses. You can find more information at www.nbwfc.info.

NBWFC appreciates any donations to help continue saving lives around the country. You can donate directly at the PayPal link on their website.

PHOTO CAP: NBWFC crew members, back row from left, Erik Stefferud, Bob Andrews, Gary Decker, Jeremy Barndt, Jason Mirandi, Sam Pfister, Jamie Tarman, Dan Tucker, Tyler Bachman, Paul Johnson, Jason Marasco, John Mahon, Quinn Jones, Gail Nolf, Tyler Hitchcock, Tyler Starkey, and Kevin Strunk; front row, Laura Gotshall, Dave Hoffman, Nate Pfizer, Jean Pfizer, Henry Lovett, Matt Labant, and Donald Johnson.