As of Tuesday, December 26, 2017
DALLAS — Dallas firefighter Zach Leigh wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “SoCal Ablaze.”
He should know — he and two other Dallas firefighters returned on Dec. 20 from a 16-day trip fighting the wildfires in California.
Leigh, Jesse Friedow and Austin Champ drove thousands of miles in a Southwest Polk fire engine to join the Linn County Taskforce assisting with the battle on the Creek and Lilac fires. Then they moved to the Thomas Fire, which is now the largest in California history, burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
The Thomas Fire burned 272,800 acres and was 65 percent contained as of Friday, according to Cal Fire.
The crew left on Dec. 5, after a multi-state conflagration began that pulled fire crews from the across the West to the aid of California firefighters.
Dallas Chief Fred Hertel said the system is similar to what happened during the Chetco and Eagle Creek fires in Oregon this year, but at a multi-state level.
“Never thought I’d see one of our trucks down near the Mexico border,” Hertel said. “They were in San Diego.”
Friedow said the fires were like nothing they had seen in Oregon, noting the dryness, how easily plants burn, and the winds that push fires to consume acres at an unbelievable pace.
“Other than rock, there’s nothing there that’s not going to burn,” Leigh said. “It’s all dry.”
Leigh said he was on a fire line at night during one of the crew’s shifts watching the glow of fire burning on the other side of a ridge. Firefighters on the line debated whether it would creep over the ridge.
He said one ember jumped over the top. It ignited and blazed back up the hill toward the fire over the ridge.
“That one little spot, once it flared … I bet it burned 40 acres in 20 minutes, just poof, gone,” Leigh said.
“It kept doing that throughout the night. It would spot down and then burn up,” Friedow added.
Fast moving winds didn’t help matters. Leigh said fighting a fire in Santa Barbara was complicated by “sundowners,” an offshore wind that develops in the late afternoon or early evening.
“(They’re) similar to Santa Anas, but they called them sundowners,” Leigh said. “There would be nothing and five minutes later, there would be a 30-mph wind.”
Friedow said he was apprehensive when he got the call to head south. He knew the conditions would be unfamiliar.
“It was a little bit of disbelief in the beginning because, you know, it’s December,” he said. “On the way down there, it was kind of nerve-racking because it’s a different place you are going to where they have different fuels, different everything. I spent a lot of time on our way down researching about the fire activity.”
Leigh said though the timing around the holiday was inconvenient, he was happy to help the residents and fire crews in California.
“I’m glad I got to go on this one because I learned a ton on it,” he said.
Back at home, the three-man crew was exhausted and happy to return before Christmas.
A welcome party gathered at the Dallas Fire Station to greet them after their long trip home and help them unpack the engine.
“Thankfully, I got my Christmas shopping done,” Friedow said. “The joy of technology.”