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Murray Journal

Murray FD leads task force helping with California wildfires

Oct 28, 2020 03:49PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Murray firefighters Shiloh Neale, John Riley, Cameron Willden, James Oyler, and Captain Stephen Olson prepare to head out in their brushfire truck in California. (Photo courtesy of Murray FD)

By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]

It didn’t take much to convince Murray Fire Department that California needed help fighting wildfires, as the smoke reached all the way to Utah and most of the Western United States. Murray City was asked to send crews out on three different occasions, once to Colorado and twice to California, to help overwhelmed fire crews in those states. 

Murray was notified via the State Division of Emergency Management in conjunction with Salt Lake County Emergency Management. This season, and many other seasons in recent history, California reached a critical level for the amount and severity of wildfires. A formal state of emergency declaration was issued, and then they sent out requests to other states in an attempt to get out-of-state trucks and crews to help fight the fires. This happened because the local, state, and county fire responders and managers were completely overwhelmed. Essentially, they have no one else available in California to respond to their own fires.

As part of a task force, firefighters from Murray, Provo, Orem, Lone Peak, West Valley, and Unified Fire were split up to attack fires in Medford, Oregon, and Northern California. Captain Stephen Olson, joined by Murray firefighters Shiloh Neale, John Riley, Cameron Willden, and James Oyler, led Utah’s response to California from Sept. 9 to Oct. 1. 

According to Olson, “The principle difference between our fires in Utah and California is this: population.  When they have a fire, it affects way more people. They have more people to deal with, and that means more lives at risk. You have to be a little more aggressive with strategy and tactics where you’re talking about a major life-safety threat to the general population.”

Comparatively, over 4 million acres have been burned in California, while Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho, and northern Arizona combined have seen over 300,000 acres burned. Part of Murray FD’s assignment included the North Complex Fire around Chico, California, where 15 fatalities occurred and 2,342 structures were lost. 

“The forests are beautiful, but as NorCal has been in a state of prolonged drought for many years, these forests are dangerously dry. For firefighters, trees and forests equal fuel. So, when you have thousands of acres of extremely dry forests, results can be explosive,” Olson said. “The boots-on-the-ground part of fighting fires in California is not unlike fighting fire elsewhere, but we have a bit of a learning curve to overcome in regards to learning the local weather factors, terrain, and forest-fuel type.”

Typically, Murray FD was assigned to work 24-hour shifts. The shifts included working on the mountain fighting fire, building control lines, thinning trees and vegetation, digging fire breaks, deploying hose-lays, locating and controlling breaches in the fire line, and performing structure protection for homes in the immediate area. They were granted a “down-day” after 24 hours of firefighting, which was spent catching up on sleep, hydration, meals, and cleaning-up equipment and tools to get ready for the next day.  

“It’s like you would count on sleeping every other day,” Olson said.  

While in California, Murray FD worked alongside firefighters from throughout the country and Canada, New Zealand and Israel. Still, after their deployment, Murray City Fire rotated a second team, consisting of Steve Roberson, Rick Best, Pete Rude and Zac Hansen. States receiving Murray FD’s assistance, in turn, will reimburse the city for the cost incurred during the task force’s deployment. 

“I made friends with a California firefighter who has been working 46 days continuously without a single day off, no weekend, no vacation, nothing. Many other California firefighters had a similar story. Those firefighters are exhausted from seasons like this, and I was glad we could respond to help give them a bit of assistance and relief,” Olson said. “I know that California would be just as willing to respond and help us.”