FDNY FFs travel west to battle wildfires, support crews that helped post-9/11

"It's an honor for us to help out the community that helped us after 9/11," said Richard DePrima, the FDNY All Hazards Team incident commander


Rob Chaney
Missoulian, Mont.

MISSOULA, Mont. — If the American Fork wildfire radio chatter has a Brooklyn accent next week, just know the FDNY has reported for duty.

That is the New York City Fire Department — 51 members of which marshaled in Missoula on Thursday before deploying to the complex of fires around White Sulphur Springs. They've come to carry on a professional relationship that dates back 20 years to the fall of the World Trade Center towers.

"It's an honor for us to help out the community that helped us after 9/11," said Richard DePrima, the FDNY All Hazards Team incident commander, as his colleagues checked gear outside the Forest Service Aerial Fire Depot smokejumper base. "And it has definitely paid off for us."

Fellow FDNY Lt. Stephen Rhine recalled the chaotic scene around the wreckage of the twin towers in 2001 after terrorist-piloted jets crashed into them and killed thousands of people, including many of New York's firefighting leadership. Help was flooding in from all over, but often adding to the confusion as unrelated agencies tried to figure out what needed doing and who was in charge. Furthermore, the catastrophe had wrecked most of the communications network.

"All our upper management had been taken out," Rhine said. "And then this Southwest Incident Management Team (of wildland firefighters) shows up. There was this guy in a cowboy hat and yellow shirt trying to help us out, and the chiefs kind of pushed him aside. We'd never used the incident command system before. But we had no radio communications. They were all lost. And this guy says, 'We've got a cache of radios.' We'd say we need this and they'd say, 'We got it.' We started adopting the ICS and now the whole department is using it."

Incident command grew out of the U.S. military as a way for personnel from multiple services to plan together, know what radio channels to use and communicate what tasks need to be done by whom. Wildland firefighters, who routinely combine federal hotshot crews, local rural volunteer fire departments and many agencies in between have used it for decades.

It turns out to work equally well for ice storms, hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters. FDNY has 287 firefighters of its 16,000 uniformed members trained in all-hazard techniques. Part of that training includes coming west to fight forest fires.

The New York visitors will shadow incident command teams on the American Fork (21,876-acre), Balsinger (8,614-acre), and Woods Creek (55,834-acre) fires around Townsend, Neihart and Harlowtown.

And just in time, according to Forest Service Region 1 spokesman Dan Hottle.

"We're stretched for resources in the Northern Rockies," Hottle said. "We've got 4,500 people fighting fire now and we're at Preparedness Level 5 — that's the highest there is. There's 800,000 acres burning in Montana, Idaho and the Dakotas. And we've got several weeks of fire season to go."

With California fires burning bigger and longer than usual and COVID infections becoming a problem again, Hottle said it's been hard to keep everyone from aircraft pilots to camp cooks on staff this summer.

"Having this group here is fantastic," Hottle said. "This is a critical time."

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(c)2021 Missoulian, Mont.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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