By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – When they arrived in Santa Barbara, California, on Dec. 7, Big Sky Fire Department Battalion Chief Stephen Pruiett and firefighters Greg Clark, Matt Mohr and Dennis Rush set right to work aiding Los Angeles County in fighting their raging wildland fires.
The national deployment was a first in Montana’s history, and fire departments throughout the state sent teams to join firefighters from California, as well as other states. The Big Sky team joined forces with two units from the Missoula Fire Department, one from Missoula Rural Fire District and one from Columbus Rural Fire District.
After two weeks of work protecting structures, putting out hot spots and routing fire hose, the crew is set to return home Dec. 23, road worn and weary but in good spirits.
“I’ve been on deployment this long before, but I’ve never had to drive two days on the front and back end,” Pruiett said. “We’re really looking forward to being home. Everybody’s got poison oak, a few of us have blisters and we haven’t really been clean in two weeks. … It feels really good [to be going home.]”
While the Big Sky crew was originally deployed for a 14-day assignment, there was a possibility of a week extension. The men left Big Sky knowing that they might not be home for Christmas.
“When you become a firefighter it just becomes part of the job,” Pruiett said. “You end up missing some holidays. I don’t think anyone wants to leave until the job is done.”
The Big Sky crew was assigned to the Thomas fire, a wind driven inferno that became the second largest fire in California’s history on Dec. 20, after burning 272,000 acres. More than 8,000 personnel have been assigned to the fire over the last few weeks and on Dec. 14, a firefighter from a San Diego unit lost his life while working the fire.
The fire broke out in Ojai, California, on Dec. 4 from unknown causes, and strong Santa Ana winds fanned the flames into Ventura. The winds, which are extremely dry downslope gusts, are infamous for fueling regional wildfires.
Pruiett called the winds “sundowners,” saying they contributed to unprecedented conditions in the area. “You’ve got sundowners which are downslope winds, which are very dangerous. [The fire] becomes wind-driven versus topographic.”
On Dec. 16, winds gusting 70 mph sent the flames through the outskirts of Montecito, burning old-growth forest and stretching into Santa Barbara County. “We had a pretty rowdy Saturday,” Pruiett said. That day, Pruiett recalls seeing the fire move 3 miles in a matter of 10 to 15 minutes.
Roxy Lawler, owner of Roxy’s Market, lives part-time in Montecito. There for the holidays and to celebrate the first year of business for another store she owns, Montecito Grocery, Lawler was faced with evacuation of both her home and business. After eight days, she and her husband Mike were allowed to return home Dec. 19 and so began the process of resuming normal life.
“Everything was left in its place at the store,” said Lawler, though she and a cleanup crew had to dispose of perished items.
According to Lawler, dry winds are common and this year saw little rainfall. “Everything is just sort of ripe and ready—and no rain—and then the wind came,” she said. “[Firefighters] did the most incredible job. Considering the number of homes that could have been lost, there were only a few.
“It’s been a monster,” she added. “We’ve been lucky in that the wind has been cooperative the last few days and they’ve made big strides.”
In the days before their return home, the Big Sky firefighters swept the mountains near Montecito in order to locate and extinguish any remaining hot spots, or areas where roots and other plant matter remain smoldering and are at-risk to catch fire with the wind.
“It is good experience for them to be part of such a large event and they will bring that experience back to the department so that we can all learn from it,” said BSFD Chief William Farhat. “Also, as we will need help from other departments if we have a large event, it is incumbent upon BSFD to assist others in the same manner so that we can benefit from that reciprocation.”
“They came and helped us out in ‘88 so we’re happy to get out and return the favor,” Pruiett said, referencing the destructive fire season that burned much of Yellowstone National Park.
At EBS press time Dec. 20, the Thomas fire had grown 1,000 acres overnight and was reported at 55 percent contained, with possible winds forecasted into the evening. The total cost of relief efforts was reported at $150 million and 1,045 structures have succumbed to the flames.