When the state of California sounded the alarm, asking for help with recent devastating wildfires in Santa Rosa, Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One, along with other departments on the Olympic Peninsula, Bainbridge Island, North Kitsap, South Kitsap and Key Peninsula areas, answered the call.
Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One Battalion Chief Todd Meyer and his crew were prepared for the emergency.
And this wasn’t the first time Gig Harbor had stepped in to help.
“We went down to San Diego with a team in 2007,” he said, adding that local crews participate in Okanagan and Chelan fires on a yearly basis. “We are up to speed and have experience with some of these larger fires.”
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A mutual aid agreement, EMAC (emergency management assistant compact), provides assistance during governor-declared states of emergency or disasters. The state of California requested assistance under EMAC.
Gig Harbor Assistant Chief Eric Watson is the county coordinator for these kinds of emergency situations.
Watson facilitates and organizes the response.
“When something large like this happens and they are seeking a response from our area, the county coordinators are the ones who organize the response. It is a lot of phone calling,” Meyer said.
Watson ran the show from Gig Harbor.
“If I had a problem in California, he was my point of contact,” Meyer said.
The state of California requested 50 fire engines and crews from the state of Washington. Gig Harbor firefighters and others responded and 50 engines prepared for the trip.
“It takes about 24 to 36 hours to get all the paperwork and everybody ready to go, and then it was 800 miles down to the North Bay area,” Meyer said.
The team left Oct. 13 and returned six days later.
Crews form strike teams made up of five fire engines. Meyer, who is qualified as a strike team leader, led one of the teams.
The fire engines traveled in a caravan fashion and attracted some attention on their trip to California.
“All the way down and back people were very appreciative of what we were doing,” he said.
Firefighters taking part in these emergency situations have a red card certification, which is earned by taking additional classes and hands-on training.
“When you go on wildfire situations you carry that card with you. When you check in, they ask you for your red card to make sure you are qualified to do the work,” he said.
Larry Rucker, a lieutenant with Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One, has been fighting wildfires in the state for ten years and is a qualified engine boss.
Now retired after 31 years in the military, Rucker is a volunteer firefighter with Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One.
The recent experience in Santa Rosa was sobering one, he said.
“It was unique because of the size and the devastation and loss,” Rucker said. “We spoke with folks who had minutes to grab and leave. When it comes to that, you take what is important and leave.”
Also a red cardholder, Rucker said fighting fires in Eastern Washington was a good learning experience.
“Those are totally different than structural fires,” he said.
Meeting firefighters from other districts who feel the same way Gig Harbor firefighters do about assisting other areas during a wildfire event was an added bonus for Rucker.
“We all have the same passion to be involved and to help control, mitigate and keep fire from endangering property and life,” he said.
Meyer said one of the biggest challenges going to out-of-state fires is getting down there and coming back safely.
“We wanted to provide a good service to California and represent Gig Harbor. This trip was shorter than what we anticipated because we planned on 14 to 18 days but we did get to do some good work and worked with other agencies,” he said, adding that Gig Harbor crew was able to protect a juvenile detention center from the fire.
Firefighters also provided much needed down time for the fire departments that had been fighting the fires since the start.
“They had been down there for four or five days and they were worn out and needed help. They were very appreciative of us being there,” Meyer said.
An assistant chief from a local fire department in California thanked those from Washington for their assistance.
“They were the ones that lost the fire station in the fire and some of the members lost their homes,” he said.
The state of California will reimburse Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One for its help under EMAC, Meyer added.
Meyer said that a lot of what the Gig Harbor department does involves work outside the community.
“Our organization has put value in doing this because it helps us prepare for other disasters that may hit home,” he said.
When folks ask Meyer why Gig Harbor firefighters went to California, he tells them it’s part of on-the-job training.
“When something big happens here, fire, earthquake, multi-casualty incident, participating in these larger events and incidents help us be prepared to provide guidance and support. We’ve been there.
“We voluntarily do this and sign up for this extra duty. It is not mandatory,” Meyer said. “I went to California to help out. It wasn’t a hardship on me. I still have my family and my house in Washington. Two weeks was no big deal. We aren’t heroes — we are there to provide a service.”