Park City Fire District Captain Dave Marsella knows firsthand about the risks facing wildland firefighters. He has been battling major fires around the West for more than a dozen years and has helped the Park City Fire District develop a specialized wildland fire team.
His interest was sparked while working part-time on a hand crew that was certified to fight fires around the country. In 2003, that team was eventually sent to the frontlines of the gigantic Old Fire in California. Marsella remembers being astounded by the magnitude of the response.
"On that fire 100,000 acres were consumed, 1,000 structures were lost and six firefighters died." Altogether, more than 2,000 firefighters and 300 engines from around the country were deployed, he said.
But along with mourning the loss of life and property, Marsella got a taste of success when the fire was finally contained. "There is a thrill in finally winning," he said.
Marsella worked as a professional firefighter in Utah County and then moved with his family to Park City. He continued volunteering for nationally-certified wildland fire crews whenever possible. Over the years, Marsella says he has fought fires in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado and California.
In 2010, Marsella began to explore the possibility of creating a certified team made up of Park City firefighters. With the increasing number of subdivisions impinging on the area's forested borders, Marsella recognized a need for additional wildland fire training.
"My main emphasis was to get people more experience with really big incidents," he said.
The groundwork involved purchasing equipment and getting staff certified. The process was completed 18 months ago and, since then, Park City has been eligible to send firefighters wherever they are needed. A crew just returned from the West Fork fire in Colorado.
According to Marsella, Park City firefighters volunteer for the extra duty which requires additional training and certification. They must be willing to ship out within two hours of receiving a call. Typically, he explained, the PCFD will send an engine boss, two firefighters and the department's four-wheel drive engine which is equipped with a 500-gallon water tank. "It can pump and roll and moves quickly."
Last year, Park City's wildland fire crew was called out seven times, with firefighters leaving home for as long as two weeks at a time, he said.
Marsella said he was shocked last weekend when he heard about the Arizona tragedy that claimed the lives of 19 wildland firefighters. "To lose an entire crew, things must have gone so horribly wrong "
The loss strikes particularly close to home, he said, because Prescott, Arizona's fire department is about the same size as Park City's. "They lost 20 percent of their fire department in one hour."
But the most recent fire fatalities won't deter Marsella from answering the next call to action.
"Anytime there is an incident like this, you have to reflect," says the father of three. "I have been in a few situations that got a little hairy. You just have to be more wary."
The science of firefighting continues to improve and investigators will apply what they learn from the Arizona fire to ensure it won't happen again.
The Park City Fire District has a link on its site for those who want to contribute to the families of the firefighters who lost their lives last week in Arizona: http://www.pcfd.org/2013/07/help-the-families-of-the-granite-mountain-hotshots/