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Fisher River firefighters coming home after stint in California wildfires

by Kyle McCLELLAN Western News
| November 13, 2007 11:00 PM

Two Fisher River firefighters are on their way home from a special assignment in southern California where they were part of a strike team that battled the wildfires there.

Their three-day road trip back will cap the 14 days that Herman Pentilla and Jason Gunderson endured in San Bernardino County, according to Fisher River Fire Chief Dean Herreid.

"The fires are dead," Herreid said, adding that he's heard reports about more starting up in Georgia.

Gunderson, who took two weeks off from college in Kalispell for the mission, is a Libby High School graduate.

About 19 Montana strike teams were sent to the wildfires in California.

A special assignment like this is one of the few instances where the all-volunteer firefighters are paid for their work.

Herreid said the U.S. Forest Service contacted him several weeks ago and asked if he'd like to accept the assignment.

Each of the firefighters on his squad is chosen by a rotation list. This time, it happened to be Gunderson's and Pentilla's chance.

They would join about 1,900 Forest Service firefighters to relieve the burden faced by San Diego County, one of the largest counties in California without its own fire department, according to The New York Times.

Herreid said the excitement for the mission is palpable in the younger firefighters.

"They're super excited in the beginning. They get amped up. They're kissing their children goodbye, they're kissing their wives goodbye, there are tears. They're all ready to go up there and save the world."

It's an excitement he often has to temper.

"I always tells them to take it one step at a time or the next could be your grave," Herreid said.

It's not easy sending his guys to an unknown region with unknown dangers.

"You just hope the people over there know what they're doing."

The work is hard but the "fascinating" life inside a fire camp offers its own bright spots.

It's like a "mini-city" that provides all the calories — 4-to-6,000 — and the water — three gallons — that each firefighter needs every day to survive.

"The food is absolutely incredible. They've got chefs and waiters," Herreid said.

To shower in the camps, firefighters enter into enormous semi-trailers that house nine or 10 showers each.

Nearby, a rubber bladder the size of a classroom contains the fresh water, which is then circulated through large propane heaters and into the showers. It rinses down the drains and finally ends up in two smaller rubber bladders.

"The mechanics of a fire camp are so cool," Herreid said.

Just as interesting might be the mechanics of a rural, budget-strapped fire department. Herreid's crew builds its own fire engines from only a chassis.

Once they get their hands on one, which may cost them $15,000, they begin designing it from there using drafting software.

The idea, Herreid said, is to design the engines to carry as much water and to carry the biggest pump possible.

The squad has built four fire engines, a process of about three months each.

The engine maintains 400 horsepower with a big granny gear.

"I don't care if they don't do 70 miles down the highway but I want them to be able to climb the mountain," Herreid said.

"These are four-wheel drive, testosterone driven machines."