DEC firefighters welcomed home after two weeks battling Montana wildfires
ALBANY As the West Garceau fire continued to eat up more than 9,000 acres of Montana reservation, David Kallen and his crew had to remember the tireless work they were putting in was having an effect.
Wildfires out West are not easy to contain, let alone squelch.
“They have a lot of large fires and very short resources, which is one of the reasons why we’re called,” said Kallen, the crew boss of a 20-person firefighting team made up of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers, employees and volunteers.
The Northville man and his crew returned home Friday to a crowd of family, friends and media at Albany International Airport. They had spent two weeks in Montana fighting the 9,863-acre West Garceau fire in Polson and the 585-acre Elevation Mountain Fire in Greenough. Each day was a 16-hour shift, and each night was spent setting up camp.
By the time they arrived back on the East Coast, they were, not surprisingly, bone tired. As part of the DEC’s Saratoga Fire Cache, four forest rangers, 13 employees and three volunteers were dispatched through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to the Flathead Indian Reservation, where three wildfires have now moved into the mop-up stage.
“There were some red-flag weather warnings while we were out there,” said Kallen. “Temperatures were between 80 and 90 degrees, and the winds on a couple of days were in excess of 20 mph, so there were still areas inside that could throw embers over our fire lines.”
It was easy to lose track of the days while they were out there, he said.
As Kallen left, a new round of storms caused several new fires to burn through acres of forest. Montana’s terrain of rangeland and steep slopes had the DEC crew using everything from heavy equipment and air operations to handline construction to corral and contain the fires.
Eric Kasza was one of several sawyers on the crew, running power saws to cut down burned trees and debris in an effort to avoid adding fuel to the fires. The Ballston Spa man was eager to arrive to the crisp, clean surroundings of the Albany airport after days of working in ash, soot and smoke.
“They were long days,” he said. “There could be four or five or six days before we would even get a chance to shower.”
The 16-hour days are tiring, said Kallen, and their nights often consisted of maintaining equipment and preparing for the next day’s operation.
“These assignments are not only physically challenging, but mentally challenging, as well,” he said, “so these guys are probably a little tired right now.”
The DEC crew was one of the best Kallen has worked with, he said. It wasn’t long after they arrived that the New Yorkers gained a reputation among local units as hard-working and trustworthy.
Crew members hailed from across New York, including Lewis, Cortland, Suffolk, Allegany, Chenango, Delaware and Essex counties, among others. The Montana fires were their first out-of-state assignment of the year, said Kallen. Much of the experience fighting wildfires can be used in crises back home, he said.
“A lot of our guys that are involved in this program assisted in Hurricane Irene response and Hurricane Lee response and other incidents like large searches and things like that,” he said.
DEC Commissioner Joe Martens commended the firefighting team for its courage. In a news release, he said its assignment serves as “a great example of how states can work together and share resources during times of adversity.”