– Firefighters head off to help Los Alamos (Daily Times, July 16, 2011):
FARMINGTON — Despite the prospect of rough conditions, sleeping in tents and surviving on camp rations, a crew of unfazed Farmington firefighters left for Los Alamos on Friday.
The federal government issued a call for help from fire departments and wild land firefighting organizations all across the nation since the Las Conchas fire started last month.
“We were getting resource requests daily during the Fourth of July,” said Farmington Fire Department Battalion Chief Nick Mrzlak. “They were in a real bind looking for manpower.”
This is Farmington’s second deployment. Each time, all the city could afford to send was a single engine crew.
“The city’s needs come first,” Mrzlak said. “July 4 is one of our busiest times of the year. It’s all about what the city can spare.”
An engine crew consists of a “Brush Engine,” which is a four-wheel drive super-duty Ford 550 with a pump and 300-gallon tank, three men and a whole heap of hoses and gear.
What an onlooker doesn’t see is the level of training that is riding alongside.
“We all have our wild land certification,” said team leader Duane Bair. “That’s the main reason they’re calling us.”
That and the fact that Bair, Robert Sterrett and Zac Brock are not only certified in fighting wild fire, they also have extensive training in hazardous material and rescue operations.
Despite the major difference between the Los Alamos fire and other wild land fires, this crew wasn’t the least bit nervous. In fact, they were excited as they loaded the truck Friday afternoon.
The difference can be summed up in a single word, “radiation,” a word that not only resonates with the recent catastrophe in Japan, it also draws up memories of some of the worst events in modern history.
“We spend all this time training so when we finally get to use it it’s a relief,” Sterrett said. “It’s definitely going to be a change of pace.”
Another reason the team might not worry about radiation exposure is that levels are constantly monitored.
“The labs have technicians keeping track,” Bair said.
“If it’s radioactive, we will know. They have crews with radiation gear.”
What had the crew the most disgruntled, however, still involved the word “hot.”
“It’s supposed to heat up come Tuesday,” said Sterrett, shaking his head ruefully. “It’s supposed to be near 100 around here.”
From a city standpoint, lending resources is not only the right thing to do, it is extremely useful for keeping local crews trained and equipped, Mrzlak said.
“All of our people are trained as wild land firefighters, but it’s not something that we get to practice on a full scale here,” said Farmington Fire Chief Terry Page.
“Giving our guys the chance to fight these large-scale forest fires is important. They get the chance to practice the skills involved in fighting real life forest fires. If we can do that while benefiting another district I think everybody wins.”
The Las Conchas Fire, which started June 26, has become the largest fire in New Mexico history. Even now, as some of the threat to the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory has faded, the fire is only 57 percent contained.
“I was in Los Alamos for the first fire,” Bair said talking about a fire that threatened the government installation 11 years ago and also resulted in an evacuation. “It’s pretty much familiar territory.”