Maryland firefighters head west to battle wildfires

When the Carr Fire in northern California enveloped what was supposed to be their escape route, Todd Dudek and his fellow firefighters had an “oh, crap” moment.

Flames lapped at either side of their fire engine as the truck barreled through the blaze and back to safety, the volunteer firefighter from Hebron recalled. In his four years of fighting wildfires, this year’s blazes in California are among the worst Dudek has experienced.

Dudek, 56, is one of dozens of firefighters from Maryland joining an international effort to battle wildfires across the western U.S. At least 60 firefighters from Maryland have been sent to fight wildfires so far this summer, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. More will likely be called up, agency officials said. And Maryland fire researchers expect to study the blazes to help fire-prone areas protect themselves in the future.

As of Monday, more than 127 wildfires were burning on about 1.6 million acres in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And on Tuesday the Mendocino Complex Fire in northern California became the largest wildfire ever recorded in the state, growing to more than 290,690 acres.

Dry conditions through out the western U.S. have helped the fires spread rapidly.

“It’s crazy wildfire behavior,” Dudek said. “It’s very, very dry. Everything is dust basically.”

Dudek is midway through a 21-day tour to help combat the Carr Fire. The 167,113-acre blaze about 120 miles north of San Francisco has destroyed at least 1,077 homes, according to Cal Fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Other Maryland firefighters are battling blazes in Texas and Montana.

Since July, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has deployed two 20-person crews to assist in fighting the fires, in addition to support staff, equipment and individual firefighters who have volunteered to help on their own. On July 6, a group of 20 Maryland firefighters was sent with five other crews from the Mid-Atlantic to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The Maryland crew was sent to fight the Dollar Ridge Fire, which burned more than 57,000 acres in northeast Utah.

On Monday, a second 20-person crew from DNR arrived in Missoula, Mont., to battle the Tenmile Fire in the Kootenai National Forest in the northwest part of the state. That Maryland contingent joined 160 people fighting the 372-acre fire for a two-week tour.

The state has worked with the U.S. Forestry Service to provide firefighters to fight wildfires since 1974.

Michael Rund, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maryland, said at least one firefighter from Baltimore City volunteered to help fight fires out west. The Maryland State Firemen’s Association did not respond to a request for comment.

The National Interagency Fire Center has turned to firefighters from across the country and other nations to assist in fighting wildfires. The center mobilized 200 active-duty military personnel from Tacoma, Wash., to serve as firefighters on Monday. And last week, it called on firefighters from New Zealand and Australia to help.

As of Tuesday, 34 people from Maryland were deployed, said Monte Mitchell, state fire supervisor for the Maryland Forest Service, a division of DNR. Most of those firefighters are employed by the department, though some, like Dudek, are affiliated with local fire companies. Each of them has undergone at least 40 hours of wildland firefighting training and passed a physical endurance test that requires them to carry a 45-pound pack 3 miles in less than 45 minutes.

Mitchell said Maryland’s crews help alleviate firefighter shortages as wildfires in other parts of the country grow. At least two crews from Maryland helped fight wildfires in California and Colorado last year, according to the DNR.

Pervasive droughts in places like California have meant extreme fires are becoming more of a regularity, Mitchell said.

A freelance photographer and volunteer firefighter with the Salisbury Fire Department, Dudek took a course in wildfire fighting four years ago. He caught “the bug” on his first trip to fight wildfires.

“I absolutely love it, and this year has been so crazy,” he said.

He and other firefighters have been working 16-hour shifts without breaks to keep the flames at bay, he said.

He estimated there were about 4,000 firefighters dedicated to fighting the Carr Fire, near Redding, Calif.

“This is my fourth year, and I’ve never seen an operation like this,” he said.

Dudek is part of a crew that travels to different areas as needed, while other groups are more stationary. Armed with a truck that carries about 1,000 gallons of water, his team has been on the front line of the fire.

“This fire was especially important to me because of people’s houses and their lives and their animals,” he said. “You just wanted to do something to help these people.”

Dudek was deployed July 28, and he expects to be asked to serve another three weeks after his first tour ends.

Mitchell anticipates Maryland will be asked to send more firefighters through August, and likely in September.

“With the dry conditions we’re seeing out there, you’re getting extreme fire behavior,” Mitchell said. “It’s devastating fires that are very difficult to fight for folks.”

Michael Gollner, an associate professor of fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, studies how wildfires spread and how communities can protect against them. While his department is not on the ground studying the current wildfires, its researchers work with Cal Fire to collect data on homes that have burned in wildfires to determine risk in certain areas.

“Unfortunately there’s a lot of data available in the last year,” Gollner said. “We know many of these areas that are at high risk for intense wildfires, and yet we’re not doing a lot of fuel management practices.”

He hopes the information they glean will help communities in fire-prone areas protect themselves against future fires. He pointed to measures such as land management, prescribed burning and building homes so they don’t ignite.

“People are forgetting in the discussion that there are things we can do now to increase prevention and minimize these losses,” Gollner said. “You can make them much more manageable.”

smeehan@baltsun.com

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