When a forest fire turns out to be too much for local firefighters to handle, it is a common practice to ask for outside help through the National Interagency Fire Center. Usually the firefighters closest to the area are asked first, but this particular set of fires, located in Shasta-Trinity National Forest around Junction City, Calif., was so huge that Delaware firefighters were called.


    When a forest fire turns out to be too much for local firefighters to handle, it is a common practice to ask for outside help through the National Interagency Fire Center. Usually the firefighters closest to the area are asked first, but this particular set of fires, located in Shasta-Trinity National Forest around Junction City, Calif., and known as “The Iron Complex Wildland Fire,” was so huge that Delaware firefighters were called.

    “When things are really, really bad, they start asking for people way out of state,” said John Petersen, communications officer for the Delaware Department of Agriculture Fire Service.

    Twenty firefighters from Delaware were sent to combat the fire. They left July 7 and returned Tuesday to Blackbird State Forest. As for the Iron Complex fires, which originally began June 21 by a lighting strike, they will not be contained until Friday, Aug. 15. So far, approximately 17,000 firefighters have contributed to the containment, which at this writing was at 56%.

    Petersen said during the fire season Dover resident Mike Valenti, assistant forestry administrator with the Delaware Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, will arrange teams of firefighters based on the their availability, and set them to be on call for certain weeks. Some of the teams can be called very quickly after their creation, like in the span of a few days.

    “[Valenti] does it because he knows there’s a need for it,” Petersen said.

    In addition to Valenti, local firefighters who returned from California are Eric Bugglin-Borer of Dover, Glen Gladders of Dover and Michael Krumrine of Magnolia.

    Petersen said in the past the firefighters have gone to fires in Nevada, Utah and Montana, as well as a hurricane in Florida, but this was their first time going to California.

    California is a common hotspot for fires. The NIFC splits the country into various geographic area coordination centers. Most cover multiple states, such as the Eastern Coordination Center, which encompasses Delaware and runs from Maine to West Virginia to Missouri to Minnesota. California suffers so many fires that the entire state has two separate coordination centers.

    Petersen said this is due to the very high temperatures and high humidity in the area.

    James Dowd, a veteran of the fire program, said the Delaware team was classified as a Type II Initial Attack Squad – one of the more advanced squads, Type I being the highest, which are on the front lines of the fire.

    Todd Gsell, a Townsend resident, acted as one of the squad bosses and ran the chain saw needed to take down large trees. He said most of what the Delaware firefighters did was structural protection. They would go to residences and fireproof them: clearing brush and firewood, moving the residents’ propane or other flammable materials and elevating the trees. They did this to many houses and a Buddhist Temple.

    “People were greatly appreciative when they saw people go out of their way to save the structures,” Gsell said.

    The Delaware firefighters also would create what are referred to as backburns, Gsell said. In this process, the firefighters pull a piece of the fire away from the larger blaze and isolate it, then anchor it in an area where the larger fire will come up against the smaller one. Doing so can cause the fire to change direction.

    “This big fire will pull the little one to it and move it away from the houses,” Gsell said.

    He said the Iron Complex fires were a unique challenge in that the firefighters did not get much helicopter support due to the high level of smoke. Helicopters are usually used to dump water or transport tools, but in this case the firefighters had to do much of this by hand.

    “We were pumping 7,000 feet of hose up the hill,” Gsell said.

    Another environmental problem was poison oak, from which many firefighters suffered. A scorpion bit another firefighter.

    Adam Keever, a Newark resident, said at one point he and three other firefighters caught sight of a 50- by 80-foot spot fire and needed to walk up the hill to contain it on their own.

    “It was pretty steep and poison oak all the way,” he said.

    Keever said eventually another firefighter group, Rio Bravo, came to help.

    “It was hot. I was tired. I was sweaty, but it was fun,” he said.

    Petersen said while this time period is in the midst of fire season, being called out to another state, especially for such a big fire, is unique.

    “This is probably the earliest they’ve ever started asking for help,” he said.

    Peterson said this group could potentially be called out again this month.

    “Everybody did a good job,” Gsell said. “The complex was very pleased with our work.”

    Editor’s note: Rebecca Henely is a staff writer at the Dover Post’s sister paper, The Middletown Transcript. Email Rebecca Henely at rebecca.henely@middletowntranscript.com