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Into the inferno: Colusa, Williams firefighters help fight Rim fire
After successfully fighting back flames from engulfing structures at a camp near Hetch Hetchy for two weeks, local firefighters have returned home from aiding in the efforts to control the Rim fire in Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park.
A strike team coordinated by Williams Fire Chief Jeff Gilbert deployed Aug. 22 with five engines and 18 firefighters from Colusa, Williams, Sacramento River, Willows and Maridian fire departments.
A second replacement crew rotated in last week and came home Tuesday.
The Rim fire, which started Aug. 17, is the fourth largest in the state's history and as of Tuesday was 75 percent contained, according to CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant. It has engulfed more than 235,000 acres and destroyed at least 11 homes and 97 other buildings, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Three commercial properties have been damaged.
The strike team was working the night shift, mostly in areas where the fire has already swept through in order to prevent a reburn.
"We were driving through fire to get to the assignment and driving through to get back to base camp. Fire was on both sides of the road," said Gilbert, who worked fire from Aug. 24 through Friday.
The team was assigned to 6 p.m.-6 a.m. shifts protecting the Camp Mather near Groveland.
"It is a camp that the City of San Francisco owns. We were protecting the structures at the camp and cabins called Evergreen," Gilbert said.
He said the area which has 30 or 40 structures was surrounded by fire.
The team worked in heavy smoke and falling trees posed the highest risk of injury or death to the team.
"Snags are the biggest concern," said Eric Kennedy of the Willows Fire Department. "Every now and then we could hear one of those big trees come down, so it's a little unsettling when you are working at night."
The crew also came across wild and frightened animals, including mountain lions, he said.
Brad Long, a 13-year veteran of the Colusa Fire Department, returned home Friday.
"Basically, in the summer time, is action packed and we're ready because a call could come at anytime," he said.
Long said firefighters worked alongside different command teams from all over the country, including Arizona and South Carolina.
"We like it. It's fun. We like to interact with the community, and it builds camaraderie, teamwork."
After working 12-hour shifts, the team returned to the base camp to eat and sleep.
The camp had been threatened by flames on Aug. 21, the day before the team's arrival, when the fire jumped the containment lines.
"You can see where fire burned all around the camp," Kennedy said. "It's black everywhere and the area is thick with smoke."
Long said camp is "basically like a little city."
"Now they have mobile sleeping units with submarine bunk beds" to rest when they're off duty, he said.
But, he said, the experience "can be exhausting."
When Long returned on Thursday night, he had an hour to go home and see the family before heading to the Colusa Fire Department for his regular shift.
Berlant said fire crews made substantial progress on the fire during Labor Day weekend because Northern California experienced cooler-than-normal temperatures and even light rainfall in some areas.
Good progress was made with burnout operations in the north and southeast sections, CalFire officials said.
The extremely dry fuels, high winds, and potential for long-range spotting remain a significant concern for the fire to advance beyond control lines, Berlant said.
More than 7,500 firefighters are battling seven major wildfires across California, including the Centerville Fire in Butte County.
A fire ignited on Saturday on the Tule Indian Reservation, burning 250 acres.
Generally, the hot fire season is August to September in Northern California and mid September to October in Southern California.
So far, Gilbert has send the strike team out four times this summer.
Colusa Fire Chief Randy Dunn said he won't jeopardize local safety to respond with a strike team.
"When it becomes a strain on our city, we won't respond. We do it when we have the manpower," Dunn said.
"I have said no before because we aren't going to leave the city short," he said.
The strike team deployed earlier than usual this year for the Panther Fire in Butte County in May, Gilbert said.
"This year seems to be a hot year," Long said.