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LIFE ON THE LINE: Firefighters put their lives at risk fighting wildfires

LIFE ON THE LINE: Firefighters put their lives at risk fighting wildfires

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A call comes in when you’re at your kid’s birthday party. It’s a wildfire. You quickly grab your gear and head out to the scene of the fire. Such is the life of a firefighter.

With the unpredictability of their jobs, firefighters have to be ready to respond in a moment’s notice, no matter where they are or what they’re doing.

Tim Grubbs, Banner County Volunteer Fire Department fire chief, had been sitting down to eat at the Asian Buffet — he had not yet gotten to eat — when the call came in Saturday, Nov. 13 about a large wildfire at the Buffalo Creek Wildlife Management Area.

“Fire is second nature to a lot of us,” he said. “When the pager goes off, you get up in the middle of the night or leave a birthday party. Walk out of church or whatever.”

Firefighters aren’t the only people who have to be flexible with their time.

“If you’re home with the kids and the pager goes off, you’ve got to have a babysitter lined up that can take your kid at a moment’s notice,” he said. “Either you got family or a good babysitter who have to operate basically like a firefighter. When the pager goes off, they have to go to work, too. If you don’t have that ... it’s just killing you knowing that the rest of your people are out there at the fire and you want to go out there and help.”

Once at the scene, firefighters are met with less than ideal conditions. At this wildfire, deer hunters in the area had to be evacuated. That didn’t go as smoothly as they would have liked.

“The problem that presented is right in front of us is where the fire was,” he said of firefighters spending hours looking for a hunter and his two sons. “The hunter was clear over (on a hill not too far from the fire), but the concern there is we got to pull resources off fighting the fire to go look for him.”

Some landowners in the area of fires also don’t want to leave their homes or belongings behind, despite a need to evacuate. One family used a grader to cut a line around their property, thinking it was enough to keep the wildfire at bay, Grubbs said.

“I went and visited with them. I said, ‘You’ve got to leave. The fire’s a mile away. You’re going to lose everything. You need to get out,’” he said. “We’re going to do our best, but the fires coming. We don’t have a natural break up here. ... If that fire wants to come down sideway, how are we going to stop it? (The fire can) sit there and come through the trees and we can’t get up on those slopes. Mountain goats can hardly get up there.”

That steep terrain also caused a lot of headaches for the firefighters. Road graders came in and made roads for easier access for the fire trucks. Those roads can be as treacherous as the rest of the terrain.

“I tried climbing (a steep hill) in a Suburban,” Grubbs said. “They have been getting trucks up there, but it’s got be a very good four-wheel drive.”

The firefighters also make sure to return the land at least close to what it was before the fire.

“We’ve cut these roads in here. We’ve disturbed the dirt. You’re worried about erosion and whatnot, and we had a great big berm beside it. So we do rehab on it. We will actually bring the graders in. Right here, we’re feathering it out. Other places will actually bring the sod back in and cover it up. We want to preserve a trail here. That’s the other way but we will do that, so there’s no added headache for the landowner,” he said.

Grubbs, though, said he talks to the landowner about the plan to rehab their land.

“We want to take care of the ground. We harmed it, we’re going to seal it back up. Whatever the landowner wishes ... If they have a problem with doing (what we are planning), we might have to come up with a different tactic.” he said.

The terrain also poses problems with its peaks and valleys. When the hills are too steep for vehicles to climb, firefighters still have to get equipment up the hills, which is no easy task. The firefighters have to hike up the hill with a lot of heavy gear including a fire shelter that weighs around 50 pounds, he said. They also have to drag fire hoses with them.

The intensity of the firefighting can also put a lot of internal pressure on those battling back the blazes.

“It’s an intense situation,” Grubbs said. “A lot of people can’t handle that intensity and a lot of people thrive on it. Tempers do get hot. You yell at each other. What happens on the fire line stays on the fire line. ...You will get together later to make sure you’re still friends.”

Also adding to that stress is the amount of time firefighters spend at the scene.

“Once we get ramped up into an incident, we start working a 12-hour shift. We will fully rotate all the people every 12 hours,” Grubbs said. “Eighteen hours is not out of line. We really try (to rotate them). We’re well aware of that.”

A good plan is also helpful, Grubbs said.

“You might have to go to work the next day or come back to the fire. With something like that, you got to think long range on it. You’ve got to manage your people,” he said.

Of course, there are some who insist on staying at the scene of the fire.

“If you don’t tell them to go home, a lot of them will stay. They’re that dedicated. They will stay out here until they’re literally dropping where they stand. You got to almost force them, ‘You’re going to go home and get some rest.’ (Gering Fire Chief Nathan Flowers) and I do that for each other.”

Grubbs said the dedication of the firefighters makes his job as a fire chief, and one of the incident commanders during the recent wildfires experienced over the summer, much easier.

“I think they really want to come out. It’s fun. It’s exciting. They’re part of something. They really enjoy it,” he said. “You will get burned out if we do this steadily. It’s pretty extreme to have four major wildfires in a year.”

It’s not just his department’s firefighters who are eager to help.

“It wasn’t 30 minutes and the Harrison fire chief was calling and saying, ‘Do you need help?’ The Crawford chief called me, the Bushnell chief who was on Facebook and somebody from Yoder, Wyoming.

“They’re just sitting there waiting. They want to come. It’s almost a bad thing if you don’t request them. So, you got to make sure that you do as much as you can...” he said.

Since he’s been fire chief, Grubbs said there are some things that have made a firefighter’s job a little easier, though.

“We used to have crop dusters — ag planes — they can convert to a firefighting plane. The planes we’re using now are actually firefighting planes. They’re designed for that. They carry retardant now,” he said.

Those single engine air tanker planes — commonly referred to as SEAT planes — travel into the area upon request and station at West Nebraska Regional Airport during a wildfire. There, they can go refill the planes with retardant after dropping a load on the fire.

SEAT planes aren’t the only aircraft that can be used to fight wildfires. Blackhawk helicopters have been steadily used at each of the recent wildfires.

“That’s another technology we’ve embraced is bringing that infrared (Multi-Use Mission) plane in and actually having them map (the fire). Now we can download it in our command post and we can see what’s going on that way,” he said. “Another thing that we used for the first time, and it’s the first time it’s been used on a wildfire in Nebraska. The state patrol has an infrared drone.”

With all of the challenges facing firefighters, Grubbs said it isn’t for everybody.

At Banner County, volunteers often already have ties to the department.

“Usually, its kids younger around 20 years old. They usually have parents that are firemen,” he said. “We mostly get people in their 30s and 40s and this is something they really want to do.”

Firefighting does run in a lot of families in the area.

“Carissa (Schank’s, a Scottsbluff Rural firefighter and founder of the Firefighter Ministry) dad was fire chief, (Gering Fire Department’s) Jeff Vance and Darrell Vance. A lot of people are raised in it,” he said. “They just can’t wait for the day the turn of age and they’re able to join up.”

That’s also the case for Grubbs.

“I can’t remember a time when my dad wasn’t part of the fire department,” he said. “It was just always there.”

jeff.vanpatten@starherald.com

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Jeff Van Patten is the sports editor of the Star-Herald. Jeff can be reached by calling 308-632-9048 or emailing jeff.vanpatten@starherald.com.

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