Fla. firefighters use vacation time to help battle wildfires out west
100+ highly trained Florida Forest Service wildfire firefighters are working to quell raging wildfires burning in 12 states
Patricio G. Balona
The Daytona Beach News-Journal
VOLUSIA COUNTY — With their heads down, Peter Scalco and a 20-man crew from the Florida Forest Service quickly cut a fire line using hand tools to protect nearby ranches and a historic site in Montana from a 35,000-acre wildfire raging nearby.
A short time later, the monster fire burst through the mountainside just outside the town of Wisdom in the Rocky Mountain region of Montana.
Despite the fire's intensity and size, Scalco and his Florida crew were able to save the structures they were protecting.
"It was exciting, it's dangerous and you are watching all this stuff happen," Scalco said.
Scalco, 33, is a Florida Forest Service firefighter who volunteered his vacation time to go out west to help quell raging wildfires that are burning through 12 states including Oregon, Montana, and California. The fires have devastated hundreds of thousands of acres of forests and destroyed homes and entire towns.
Scalco recently returned to Florida after two weeks in Montana from late June to mid July where he helped firefighters there battle a huge wildfire dubbed the Trail Creek Fire that threatened ranches and the historic Big Hole National Battlefield at Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
"You know, you're hugging the house that you're protecting and you're just watching the hills around you get incinerated, so loud, so pretty dramatic," Scalco recounted. "We lost zero structures. You know, that fire was burning with great intensity but because of planning and the training and the focus that we had, it was a successful day for us."
Scalco, a Volusia County resident, is one of more than 100 highly-trained Florida Forest Service wildfire firefighters who volunteer their vacation time each year to help colleagues in western states, said FFS spokeswoman Julie Allen.
"Currently we have 109 personnel on western fire assignments," Allen said earlier this week.
Although the state fire service could not say how many Florida firefighters travel west annually to help battle blazes there, volunteers go every year, Allen said.
"At any given time, there are approximately 125 of our Florida Forest Service personnel assisting with wildfire suppression activities in western states," Allen said.
It's a very active wildfire season, said John Molve, 57, another Volsuia County resident and Florida Forest Service firefighter who volunteered his vacation time and deployed to California from mid to late July. While on his way to protect a town called Weed near Mount Shasta, Molve said he had to speed through two wildfires near Chico, California, as highways and roads were being shut down.
"The town was named Weed. Believe it or not, that was the name of the town," Molve said, holding up a souvenir key chain with the town's name on it.
Raging wildfires continue in California and have destroyed about 500,000 acres of forests, media reports state.
Last week, the wildfire dubbed the Dixie Fire burned much of Greenville, California. It destroyed 370 homes and structures and threatened another 14,000 buildings. The Dixie Fire, which California authorities said is the second largest wildfire in the history of the state, grew to 725 square miles on Sunday, an area more than double the size of New York City, according to media reports.
Four firefighters were struck by falling trees, authorities in California said.
Falling trees were a constant danger to Scalco and his fellow firefighters. In Florida, Scalco drives a bulldozer equipped with a plow to cut eight-foot wide fire lines around brush fires. The bulldozers are reinforced with steel and iron bars and a metal roof that offer protection from falling trees, he said.
But in Montana, Scalco and other members of his team used hand tools, including hoes, shovels and heavy-duty rakes, to cut and clear a one-foot wide fire line around Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Park and nearby ranches to protect them from the Trail Creek fire.
"Unlike here in Florida, out west there's a lot of emphasis on using hand tools to attack fire," Scalco said. "We have heavy duty rakes, we use hoes, we use a tool called the pulaski, which is a combination of a hoe and axe, and shovels to cut the brush as that fire advances, dig that brush away and just leave clean mineral soil so the fire will stop."
In Florida, bulldozers are used because of the heavy underbrush but in western states, the underbrush tends to be very sparse, spread out, and lighter, so hand tools are easier to use, Scalco said.
But dangers loom for the firefighters on foot, he added.
"Out west we're way more vulnerable to things like tree strikes, you know as we're just on foot, whereas here in Florida we're more protected in these tractors," Scalco said.
In his years of experience and training, Scalco said falling trees are a major source of firefighter fatalities. Trees fall after being weakened by fire or killed by pests like pine beetles, he said.
"They get weak and then they start falling down in mass numbers," Scalco said.
In California, Molve didn't have to cut fire lines because he was a division supervisor, but he and his crew had to work hard to keep the Mount Shasta fire from reaching the town of Weed. Part of the town was destroyed by a wildfire five years ago, so he and his division were intent on not letting the fire reach it again, he said.
The fire burned its way up Mount Shasta but firefighters had to keep fighting off its downward movement as well, Molve said.
"We were basically holding that fire to make sure that the fire wouldn't come out and burn the city of Weed down," Molve said
As division supervisor, Molve had to make sure fire crews had the equipment needed to hold back the fire, he said.
And when equipment could not be brought to the firefighters, graders were used to level off roads to allow fire engines to move in. After the fire was controlled, crews leveled mounds of dirt created when roads were cut to prevent water pooling and mud avalanches, Molve said.
"There's a whole bunch of different things that are going on," Molve said.
After the fire is under control a lot of work also goes into picking up the equipment used to battle the blaze, Molve said.
"In one area, there were 35,000 feet of hose that needed to be picked up," he said.
Molve slept in a sleeping bag in the back of his truck. Scalco lived in a tent.
Despite the rough conditions, Scalco said it was gratifying to see people react after their homes were saved.
Molve agreed with his fellow firefighter.
"It feels good to help," he said. "There is just a great feeling when you see signs all over town and the area welcoming and thanking firefighters for what they do."