Loomis strike team makes narrow escape at American Fire
Loomis strike team members had a harrowing experience while fighting the American Fire.
On their first day out, the four-member Loomis Fire Protection District crew escaped unharmed from a near burn-over that blistered the new Loomis brush firetruck. A burn-over is when a fire actually overcomes the crew and burns over the top of them.
Captain Devin Fuller, along with firefighters Shawn Pewitt and Daniel Rangel and engineer Sean Fuller, deployed to the American Fire on Aug. 18 as part of Strike Team 4126-C.
The dusty, tired crew, smelling of smoke, returned to the Loomis firehouse on Friday to rest. They shared their story.
Pewitt said it was his first wildfire deployment. He said on the first day, the team was working with the U.S. Forest Service Interagency Hotshot Crews clearing brush and preparing for the night-time back burn to remove the fuel from the oncoming fire. He said they worked with chainsaws to take out ladder fuels and leafy undergrowth along the fire lines.
“The back burns are done at night to keep embers from starting spot fires and they wait for proper conditions to burn it off,” Pewitt said.
Devin Fuller said that evening, at about 8:30 p.m., they were assisting a Hotshot crew that was conducting a controlled burn to slow the rate of the fire. He said the Loomis truck was parked on a narrow, dirt road that was created by a bulldozer. The crew was in steep terrain and working on a burning pine tree leaning over the road that was threatening to come down across it. About 20 minutes into it, they noticed the wind had shifted and the fire was burning back to their location.
Pewitt said, “We were out of the rig making sure the leaning tree didn’t burn and fall over the road. We were working on that tree with the hose when the wind shifted.”
Rangel said, “Everything just took off.”
Fuller said, “The fire was starting to come across the road.”
Pewitt said they trained the fire hose on the rig to cool it and the vegetation next to it, trying to save the engine.
Conditions became very dangerous.
Rangel said, “We had the hose back on the truck and we were bailing out.”
But now the crew couldn’t see to make their escape.
Pewitt said, “It was pretty bad and we couldn’t see the road.”
Fuller said he got out of the truck, wearing his gear and a full face mask and goggles, and walked two feet in front of the truck, guiding it by feeling the earthen shoulder with his foot.
Devin Fuller said, “There was a lot of heat and smoke, with zero visibility. Everything on our left was on fire.”
Sean Fuller, who was driving the truck, said he couldn’t see Devin Fuller if he got more than 2-3 feet in front of the truck.
The crew continued like that and traveled back about a quarter mile to the safety zone.
When asked if he was concerned by the situation, Pewitt said, “Yes and no. It’s part of our job.”
Loomis Fire Protection District Chief Dave Wheeler estimated that temperatures near the truck were probably 800-1,000 degrees for a limited time. He said the heat bubbled the striping on the truck, melted plastic light covers and warped the doors. He said repair estimates are at $4,000 and the truck will eventually have to be sent to Modesto for repair. He said repair costs will be covered by the Forest Service as part of the cost of the fire.
Today, the truck is being cleaned and readied by the regular Loomis Fire crew, while the strike team rests and gets cleaned up. Saturday, the strike team and truck will be back out on the front lines of the American Fire for another 24-hour shift.
Wheeler said he expects that Loomis will next be asked to help fight the massive Rim Fire near Yosemite.
“They can’t fill the resources on the Yosemite fire,” Wheeler said.