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Berkshire Firefighters Return After Battling Wildfires in West

U.S. Department of Agricultural, Forest Service

Three firefighters from western Massachusetts are back home after fighting forest fires in the western United States.

The Berkshire County firefighters were part of a group of 22 men and women from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation  and municipal fire departments.  Cousins Max and Jonathan Lacasse of Lanesborough and Bruce Forgea of Windsor joined 20 firefighters from the Commonwealth that spent three weeks in western Montana’s Lolo National Forest. The state’s two remaining fire officials were set to Yosemite National Park in California and Sulphur Springs in West Virginia. Dave Celino is the DCR’s Chief Forest Fire Warden.

“They went out as what we call a Type-2 Initial Attack Hand Crew,” Celino said. “They’re designed and qualified to go out there and they’re the firefighters that are on the ground. We call them the ground pounders.”

He says the crews weren’t battling the typical large forest fires, but instead facing many smaller fires.

“Lightning strike fires…to grab these fires at the early stages before they turn into large, mega, complex fires” said Celino.

He says these type of fires are unpredictable and tend to simply pop up.

“It’s a matter of quickly getting on that fire and getting control around the perimeter of it and putting it out completely,” he said. “You don’t know whether that’s going to take a day or two days, or in some cases the small fires took as much as three days because of the drought conditions out there.”

Celino says the firefighters rode in on helicopters or in some cases hiked to the edge of the fires. He says many members of the crew are experienced in fighting field and forest fires as the DCR has been sending crew to the West since 1985 to aid in emergency situations.

“They take a 40 hour basic wild land fire course combined with a fitness test which is a three-mile hike with a 45-lb pack on their back and they have to do that in under 45 minutes,” said Celino.

The U.S. Forest Service says a wildfire that has been blazing in and around Yosemite National Park since last month is one of the largest wildfires in California history and has cost $81 million to fight. Officials now say it was started by a hunter burning an illegal fire. Fires overall increased throughout August due to hot and dry weather patterns, low moisture and numerous scattered dry thunderstorms that produced hundreds of lightning strikes. Celino says the tide has turned in Lolo National Forest as the National Preparedness Level was at an extreme of five and has now been downgraded to two.

“The weather patterns are changing out there,” he said. “They’re starting to get some precipitation in those areas where we weren’t for the last two months. Probably even see some snow in the higher elevations out there. We’re seeing those conditions start to calm down a little bit.”

The crew was initially scheduled to return last week from Lolo National Forest. Celino says the average time is 14 days, but their stay was extended to help deal with several lightning strike fires, including a 500 acre fire during their last two days.

“When a crew comes back we’ll typically stand down for a week or two,” Celino said. “Then look at our roster and see who’s available. Then look at the national needs as well and it looks like at this point, that’s come down quite a bit.”

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