Austin fire crews recall ‘surreal’ stint battling California wildfires


Highlights

Five Austin firefighters were deployed Aug. 8 to Northern California to help put out the Carr Fire.

The Carr Fire began July 23 and engulfed more than 229,000 acres and had killed three firefighters.

Austin Fire Specialist Stacy Oakley used to watch wildfires burn in California and around the world on the news.

Earlier this month, though, he got a phone call — Oakley and four other Austin firefighters were needed in Northern California to help put out the Carr Fire, a massive wildland fire that engulfed more than 229,000 acres, destroyed 1,079 homes and killed three firefighters.

“It was very interesting … you know, you’re watching this on the news for obviously weeks before we went out there, and then all of a sudden you end up out there. So that was a little surreal,” Oakley said. He had fought fires in Fort Davis and Amarillo this year, but this was the first time he’d gone out of state to help.

Oakley traveled with Austin Battalion Chief Randy Denzer, Lt. Steve Gibbon, Lt. Mike Scott and Fire Specialist Jim Buhrkuhl on Aug. 8 to Shasta and Trinity counties, where for two weeks they worked shifts lasting 16 to 28 hours, assisting a fight that began July 23, California fire officials said. Austin’s firefighters were part of a group of 94 Texas firefighters who assisted in laying fire retardant, dousing flames with dirt or water, and keeping the fire within a containment line, Denzer said. The Carr Fire is now 100 percent contained, they said.

Since returning home Aug. 22, the firefighters have reflected on what they learned in California and what they brought from Austin.

Denzer said working on the 2011 Bastrop County Complex Fire — which killed two people, injured 12 and destroyed 1,660 homes — helped the team battle the blaze in California.

“The fact that I had guys and girls on this task force that I led that had been to Bastrop and other big fires, it helped us in being prepared for what we saw (in California),” Denzer said. “For most of us, this is the largest fire we’ve ever seen in our career. You’re standing on one mountaintop, at a lookout position, and you can see a fire that looks like it’s in another part of the state and then find out it’s actually the same fire, it’s kind of mind-boggling.”

Temperatures were 105 degrees during the day and 55 at night, Denzer said. California’s air is much drier than in Texas, he explained, making the conditions “brutally hot” but more comfortable than the oppressive humidity in Austin.

“The temperatures were very similar as they are here, which was really not something I was expecting,” Oakley said, adding he had envisioned cooler temperatures in the 70s and 80s during the day.

Larger trees in California also gave the team some culture shock. But experience in battling brush in Bastrop helped the team be more effective at putting out hot spots and containing the fire, Denzer said.

Now, the firefighters can speak from first-hand experience when leading training sessions for cadets, Oakley said. He said it will be a great asset to speak about what they encountered in California and how they can apply their experience to future incidents in Austin.

Despite the long days and grueling work, the firefighters said the experience was humbling and they felt grateful to help.

At the end of their shifts, the firefighters would be greeted by a group of school-age girls as they returned to home base to eat and rest. The girls brought them notes, like one reading, “You are a hero.”

“The little girls would run up and hand you a piece of paper, and it was a very humbling moment that a little girl can melt firefighters down — these dirty, old, nasty firefighters. Everyone that got ’em, you’d look at them and see if they had a tear coming out of their eye, because it just melts you down that they were there,” Denzer said. “It was amazing, absolutely amazing.”



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