EAST MARLBOROUGH—A Kennett area man has returned from a volunteer mission to assist with fighting the massive wildfires in California recently. More than 9,279 fires have burned 4.3 million acres, making it the largest wildfire season recorded in California's modern history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Erick Stefferud, Land Stewardship Operations Manager at Longwood Gardens in East Marlborough Township, said the volunteer mission was challenging.
It was his fourth deployment to the Western U.S. forests. With the programs he has attended and the fires he has battled, he is now rated as a “warden”. In the latest deployment he served as a “squad boss”.
He received the call in Kennett Square for more firefighters on a Thursday and on Friday he was enroute to California, with two other firefighters. With them was their personal firefighting equipment. They joined others just outside of Penn State University forming a group of 20 trained state and local volunteer wildland firefighters who become a “crew”.
This crew lives and works together under the leadership of a “crew boss” for the duration of the deployment. Normally they fly to the area of the fire but this year, because of the Covid-19, driving to minimize potential exposure, they drove across the country in a caravan of seven pick-up trucks. They were constantly aware of the COVID danger as they were living and working in such close proximity to each other.
While in the fire area, the crew worked 16 hour days. Carrying about 45 pounds of gear each at 3,000-foot elevation, with daytime temperatures up to 95 degrees, it required good physical and mental training.
During the week, one the crew members worked the night shift monitoring the fire overnight along with 300 people working the fire in Lava Beds National Monument area. They were assigned to a rocky area that made it difficult not to slip and fall.
Week two assignment was in Lassen National Forest working the day shift. They worked to protect fire breaks, protect homes and buildings, install water lines and monitor for embers spread by the high winds. The crew had been told that their area had been cleared of farm animals. While monitoring for embers, they found some embers remained.
"A bull had been left behind outside of the pasture and he became annoyed at our presence and charged one of the crew members," Stefferud said. "Nobody was hurt, bull was saved."
When the squad was assigned to various areas they were fed from “catering trailers” and stayed within their 20-man crew module. Sleeping was not quite as posh as they slept on the ground in bedrolls. This kind of work requires one to stay in good physical shape.
“As every fire assignment proves to be, it was an uphill battle, especially given the assignments related COVID-19 precaution while fighting the wildfire," Stefferud said. “But it was also a time of hope a time of togetherness and a time of accomplishment.”