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Montana fire crew returns home from California wildfires

Posted at 2:00 PM, Nov 25, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-25 16:05:55-05
Photo: Big Sky Fire Department/Facebook
Photo: Big Sky Fire Department/Facebook

BIG SKY – A crew of Big Sky firefighters returned from Simi Valley, California last week after helping battle the recent wildfires in the Golden State.

It was November 10 when the Big Sky Fire Department received a call from California fire officials asking for help. Their immediate response? Absolutely.

“When there is a time and a need for help, we are willing and able to do that,” said Big Sky Fire Captain Mitch Hamel. “It is what we enjoy doing. We want to be there in the time of need.”

Once the department heard about their need for service, several volunteered, and on November 11, five crew members hopped in a fire engine to head down to the fire camp.

They first arrived at the staging area in Camarillo, California and then headed about 30 miles north of Malibu to where the Woolsey Fire first started in Simi Valley.

According to Cal Fire, as of November 21, the Woolsey Fire had burned more than 96,000 acres, destroyed 1,500 structures, injured three firefighters, and killed three people.

“You could still see fire burning up in the hillsides and a lot of smoke,” said Big Sky Firefighter Mike Ketschek. “I’d say hundreds and hundreds of firefighters, all staged, ready to go.”

“Even though there was a lot of destruction and people lost everything, the mood was that people were excited that we were there to help out for sure. Very appreciative,” said Hamel.

Both Hamel and Ketschek said they were not fearful for their lives while in California. Most of the crew’s time was spent at the fire staging area while on standby in case of an emergency.

“We felt confident in our skills and our abilities and knowledge of different situations, and we want to be there in that time of need. And again, we are just super fortunate that Big Sky Fire and our chiefs were able to send us down there and we were able to be there for those people affected by the wildfire,” said Hamel.

The Big Sky Fire crew was originally supposed to spend about two weeks in California but due to the abundance of firefighters and resources at the staging station, they were released to go back home after two days.

Hamel said after seeing the natural disaster, he is thankful to be back in Montana and safe.

-Reported by Mederios Babb/MTN News

(November 11, 2018) Montana fire crews are stepping up and heading to California to help in any way they can by sending close to 100 firefighters and about 20 fire engines.

Crews from Columbus, Red Lodge, Big Sky, Bull Lake, and other stations across the state hit the road Sunday morning.

MTN spoke with Fire Chief Rich Cowger of the Columbus Rural Fire District about the choice to send crews out to help.

“That’s what we do as a fire service in particular,” he said. “We’re having a conference down here where we talk about how we are family and what we do and what our mission statements are protecting the citizens that we serve.”

Cowger said the people in California are having the ultimate of bad days.

“I think for our department alone, this is our third deployment down to California. That’s the main concern. That’s why they are going down there, not only to for them to stay safe,” he said. “But to help other folks that are down there. Those firefighters are overworked and overwhelmed. That’s part of the purpose is to keep those guys safe.”

He added they are not sure what the firefighters’ assignments will be, but will know in the next couple of days.