Utah firefighters help fight blazes

Published: Sunday, Oct. 28 2007 12:23 a.m. MDT

Engine boss Jo Loter, center, goes through daily checks with the members of the Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority in Irvine, Calif., on Friday.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

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IRVINE, Calif. — When wildfires are raging all around you, waiting around is the worst part of the job, Utah firefighters agree.

Ten members of the Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority are in Southern California to help battle and mop up after a historic week of wildfires that have killed seven people, blackened a half-million acres, destroyed 1,700 houses and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage.

The Utahns have had some assignments over the past several days — on the fire lines and monitoring "hot spots" and protecting buildings — but with the week winding down, they've paused for a while in the Irvine Regional Park staging area.

The break gives them a chance to talk about who they are and what they do.

The five-member teams of fire bosses Jo Loter and Mike Swenson were called on to help battle blazes in the hills around east Orange County. Loter got her team and engine to the staging

area Wednesday morning and they were sent out that day on a structure protection assignment in Silverado Canyon. Swenson's team and engine arrived late Thursday. Before long, they were also receiving assignments to fight the fires.

Their engines are especially helpful because, besides water pumping, they have foaming capability. Loter said foaming is very helpful in structure protection, for if the fire is threatening a building and putting the firefighters at risk, they can spray foam on the building before they pull out. Burning embers will die in the foam rather than ignite the home. She said the foam remains effective for a few hours.

Loter, a transplant from New Zealand who moved to Utah several years ago to snowboard, and Swenson, a Park City native, are full-time firefighters with the fire authority and work on structure fires in Salt Lake County as well as wildland fires.

Utah's wildland fire season ended before they were asked to help in California, and their seasonal teams had been disbanded. But they were able to pull together temporary teams for the trip southwest. Though members of the team are not their regulars, they said they all know each other and have confidence in one another's abilities.

Members of Loter's team include Shawn Lovato, 40; Nate Crump, 28; Tyler Stegemoller, 24; and Austin Blackett, 19.

On Swenson's team are senior member Harold Haugen, 56 — who calls firefighting a hobby; Henry Quintana, 40; Greg Vanderwerff, 33; and Eric Boevers, 21. Their experience ranges from 12

years down to one season. In their ranks are full-time firefighters, aspiring firefighters, business owners, regular workers and even students.

All agree that firefighting is a rush — a personal challenge that can bring intense feelings of excitement and accomplishment. It also offers a different experience every day, according to Boevers. And, they said, they have a strong bond as a team and enjoy being with each other.

Loter is the only woman on the team, but she said "We get along good. They usually treat me like their amazing little sister, though today they called me 'Grandma.'"

Milling around the park was hard for them. They chatted, rested and worked on their fire engines, two of dozens parked in the staging area. As much as they dislike sitting around, they understand the importance of coordination so that valuable resources, in an emergency like this, are used to their best potential, without confusion bringing risk to the firefighters and their equipment.

And they were not alone in the canyon park. They are among hundreds of others waiting to get on the lines. At Irvine Region Park, they are fed and sleep — the Utahns in sleeping bags thrown out on a tarp on the ground.

The thrill of battling blazes by hand is real, the crews said, but is a usually small part of the job. Most of the time their assignments involve such duties as monitoring hot spots. They go to already-burned-out areas, searching for and digging up still-smoldering embers so they can't be lifted on the wind to areas with unburned fuel.

The job's dangers also are real — but not necessarily always related to fire.

"There's a hundred ways to get hurt at a fire that aren't the fire," Haugen said — falling trees and rocks, tripping over hazards and vehicle incidents, for example.

So, "In firefighting, safety is No. 1," Swenson said.

He added that fire danger can be mitigated by such tactics as always keeping a safe escape route open and posting lookouts in spots where they can see the fire and the people. On the lines,

you can't always see where the flames are, he pointed out.

But sometimes things go wrong anyway.

Vanderwerff is the only one on these teams who has ever had to deploy his shelter — an aluminum and fiberglass pup tent that a firefighter can curl up in if he can't avoid being overrun by flames. "You've got to be very scared to deploy it," he said.

While fighting a fire near Tooele in 2006, he was at the fire line when a sudden wind change blew the flames right on top of him. Fighting the impulse to run — "you can't outrun a fire," he said —he deployed the shelter. Suddenly he was grateful for the training videos firefighters watch often, and often make fun of, as he focused his mind on surviving rather than panicking. The temperature inside was hot, but in his case the fire blew over and he was safe. He emerged and headed right back into work mode, but when a break came and he reflected on the near-tragedy — an event that so do not survive — he "bawled like a baby."

Haugen had a similar experience during which the wind blew a brush fire toward his team faster than they could run away. He said he was grateful for a young team leader at that time who shouted the order, "Run to black." Haugen and the others followed the training for that tactic, which is to run through the fire to the burned ashes behind it.

Helping out in other states is common among firefighters like those on the Salt Lake area teams. They will stick around in Southern California for as long as they are needed. Their expenses

will be reimbursed. And though they've been called away, Loter said there should be no concern in Utah because there are plenty of the other approximately 600 authority firefighters back in their hometown.

In the case of a major fire, others will be willing to jump in and help just as they are helping in California

And besides the chance to do something they enjoy, the teams are "proud to represent Unified Fire," Loter said.


E-mail: ghill@desnews.com

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