Crews help extinguish big summer blazes

For most firefighers, trying to envision battling a 16,000-acre fire for the first time after primarily extinguishing small brush or structure fires could be an intimidating experience.

But for North Kitsap Fire & Rescue firefighter Garrett Owens, it was old hat.

The 2001 North Kitsap High School graduate was one of 17 local firefighters who were called up to be part of the Kitsap Wildland Team that helped extinguish one of the summer’s biggest wildland fires last month — the Fischer Fire, near Leavenworth.

The Kitsap Wildland Team is composed of teams of firefighters from Jefferson, Kitsap and Mason counties. This summer, they were sent to blazes in Eastern Washington, near Lake Chelan, Cle Elum, Davenport, Naches and finally, the Fischer Fire.

While most local crews are used to battling structure and brush fires, fighting a wildfire isn’t much different. Similar strategies were used, just on a larger scale.

“This was much more dramatic,” Owens said.

His primary job was to provide water to fire crews within the fire grounds using NKF&R’s 3,500-gallon water tender.

Another local firefighter on the grounds, Poulsbo Fire Department volunteer and Kitsap Wildland Team member Jay Melrose had high praises for Owens’ work as the NKF&R firefighter hauled 30,000 gallons in one day to various areas within the fire grounds.

“That’s a lot of water because without a water source we can’t fight a fire,” Melrose said.

Melrose was part of a structure mobility group, in which the crews made sure homes were protected by using various tools and methods of fire prevention.

This included completing controlled burns on combustible items around trees, brush, grass, foliage, wood and removing grills and propane tanks. Crews also placed foil-like material on windows and home openings to deflect heat and installed sprinkler systems around the houses to keep the areas damp.

In one day, crews would complete about a dozen homes and also fight small blazes and hot spots that would spark up nearby. None of the structures that the Kitsap team protected were lost, Melrose happily reported.

“People really melded together as a good team,” he said.

Crews would wake at 6 a.m. for breakfast and the day’s fire briefing and be out in the field by 8:30 a.m. They would work until they were pulled off duty, which sometimes wasn’t until 9:30 p.m. Firefighters would then head back to their campsite at the Leavenworth Fish Hatchery, where they would eat, shower and sleep.

“It’s a very long, tiring, drag-you-down (day),” Melrose said.

Despite long days, there were the perks that made the work worth it. Melrose recalled when he and PFD volunteer and Strike Team Leader Ed Wright were installing foil on the windows on a home when the house phone rang and the machine picked up. It turned out to be the homeowner, calling to see if the house was OK. Wright called the woman back and told her the house was fine and that crews were working on it at the time.

Other bittersweet stories included rescuing a tiny kitten with a burned nose from a bush and feeding the ducks and chickens that were left behind, Melrose said.

They also often encountered residents who were grateful for the crews’ efforts.

“They were just appreciative, nothing but absolute gratitude and thanks,” Owens said, noting they were often offered cookies and other food by locals. “It was pretty cool to have the support of residents up there.”

For being his first big blaze, Owens found that the most interesting part of the event was observing the fire itself.

“The behavior of that fire was powerful,” he said, noting that plumes of smoke would drift 25,000 feet in the air. “It was interesting to see this aspect. To see that, it was exciting.”

While Melrose has been fighting fires for six years, each experience is a new one.

“You’re always learning,” he said. “I’ve been on the line for six years and every fire you go on, you learn something.”

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