Summit County firefighters return from deployment in California
Park City Fire District Captain Zane Thompson felt like he was in an old black-and-white movie as he and two other Park City firefighters rode through the hills of Malibu, California, last week surveying the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire.
“You see the pictures on TV, but it didn’t settle in until we showed up and were driving through the west hills,” he said. “It’s like: Did this really happen here? It’s Malibu. But, there is nothing left. Most of the homes are just foundations or cement stairs. And everything else is nuked. All you see are blacks and grays.”
Thompson said abandoned melted cars lined the narrow roads and ditches throughout the hills, sort of a like a graveyard for the vehicles.
Thompson, along with Park City firefighters Rob Takeno and Johnathan Jahp, traveled to Southern California on Nov. 11 to help the nearly 10,000 firefighters battling the deadliest blazes in state history. Two firefighters from the North Summit Fire District also went to California.
The Woolsey and Camp Fires have devastated parts of Southern and Northern California, resulting in the deaths of at least 87 people, with hundreds of people still missing. The fires have scorched thousands of acres and destroyed countless structures and homes. Thousands of people and animals have been displaced as a result of the blazes.
The Park City crew was stationed in Ventura County, California, on the Woolsey Fire last week. The fire was fully contained as of Friday. Approximately 96,949 acres had burned.
Thompson said their first assignment included traveling along the Pacific Coast Highway and interacting with the public, putting out hotspots and sifting through the burnt homes to try and salvage items. He said the fire had already traveled through the area, but it had the potential to rekindle and destroy the homes that were still standing.
“It was really quiet in the engine as we drove through,” he said. “It’s like, ‘This is the reality.’”
Thompson met a man who had lived in the area for more than 50 years and survived five major fires. He added, “He just plans it all out and stays in place to protect his home.”
“I was talking with him and this fire had three civilian deaths. Two of them were his neighbors and the third was an older gentleman who lived two houses up from his,” he said. “They knew each other and were good friends. It’s like you go to fight fire and you have this energy, and then when you talk to someone like him, it puts things in perspective. It’s very sobering I guess.”
The crew from the Park City Fire District spent one week in California, working rotating 24-hour shifts and sleeping with dozens of other firefighters in makeshift yurts. They were put up in a hotel for a couple of those nights, which Thompson said provided brief relief from the chaos of the Incident Command Post.
“It made it easier to clear your mind,” he said. “You had to so the next time you come on you are not just so overwhelmed. We would go up to a pier in Ventura and just sit there and clear our heads, talk to our family, relax and regroup.”
Thompson said he couldn’t imagine what the firefighters in California do to deal with devastating blazes each year. He added, “I don’t know how they do it and continue to keep going.”
Most people become firefighters to fight fires, Thompson said. But, more importantly, to help people. That’s what the week was about for him, he said.
Eventually the sobering realization hit him that a similarly destructive fire could happen in Summit County. As Thompson was driving around Malibu, he couldn’t help but compare the area to Summit Park. The small, single-access roads he encountered, along with the topography and fuels, reminded him of the western end of the county.
“I was trying to pick up our district and put it in the area that burned,” he said. “There is a lot of work that we need to do for the urban interface here for when it does happen. It’s not if. It’s just going to be when.
“Utah was the hot spot for fires. We had a lot of them last year,” he added. “In the last couple of years, we have had just small fires on the outskirts of Park City and now they are getting closer and a little bigger. It’s going eventually to happen.”
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The man was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was hospitalized at the time of his death.