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Woodinville firefighters help battle state wildfires

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Lt. Greg Garat
Courtesy Photo. Woodinville Fire & Rescue’s Lt. Greg Garat
Crews from all across the state, as well as from other parts of the country and even Canada, have been involved in fighting the rash of destructive wildfires across eastern Washington.

The lightning-caused blazes have burned hundreds of acres and damaged dozens of homes and cabins in the past few months.

For many firefighters, the fires were some of the most impressive they’d seen in their careers and were notable for their sheer complexity.

“There were so many fires going on at the same time over a large geographical area,” says Tony Woods, a Woodinville firefighter. “The range was from Mt. St. Helens all the way up to the Okanogan.”

He adds, “New incidents kept popping up and some days there were up to 30 calls where 20 of them might be the same fire, but in different directions.”

Strike team leader trainee Seth Merritt at Ta;ylor Bridge
Courtesy Photo. Strike team leader trainee Seth Merritt at Taylor Bridge
Woods, a 20-year veteran of Woodinville Fire & Rescue, served as a task force leader at the Taylor Bridge and Wenatchee Complex fires.

At one point in time, he was supervising 86 people, helping to coordinate the effort in these areas.

“It takes an enormous amount of teamwork and coordination when you have so many fires happening simultaneously,” he adds. “You have to put the resources where they’re needed most, which means you have to prioritize.”

Firefighting is Woods’ passion. He fell in love with the profession after working alongside his dad, a volunteer firefighter.

“I thought I was going to be a policeman at first,” he explains, “but that changed as soon as I saw what firefighting was all about. I like helping people and the work is very fulfilling.”

WFR firefighters Ron Suggs and Jeff Smith
Courtesy Photo Woodinville firefighters Ron Suggs, left, and Jeff Smith
Along with Woods, eight other Woodinville firefighters were deployed at various times to aid in battling the fires. They included Seth Merritt, Ian D’Ambrosia, Greg Garat, Ron Suggs, Jeff Smith, Marshall Frye, Chad DeVlieger and Rob Robertson.

Merritt, who is in his 11th year with Woodinville, has been involved in more than a dozen state mobilizations.

This season he has already been deployed twice to fight wildland fires. The first stint was for 17 days and the second time, 15.

“It was the two longest state mobilizations I’ve been on,” he comments. “The fires themselves weren’t the worst I’ve ever seen, but the frequency and timing of them — one after another — was definitely the worst.”

Merritt, a strike team leader trainee, feels strongly that he and his crew made a difference during their time in the field. “We were able to save quite a few houses and affect change,” he adds.

For the local firefighter, the situation was challenging, but the hardest part about the experience was being away from his family for such a long time.

“I’m a career firefighter and we’re typically only gone for 48 hours at a time, so this was difficult,” he says.

Firefighting is in Merritt’s blood. Both of his grandfathers, as well as his dad, were in the profession, and then he has several uncles and cousins currently involved in the field, too. “It’s what I was born to do,” he adds.

D’Ambrosia, another longtime Woodinville firefighter, was deployed three times to wildland fires in eastern Washington, for a total of 36 days. This year has been the most active fire season, in his opinion.

“It’s been pretty crazy,” he comments. “The Table Mountain fire was by far the most impressive. I watched a crown fire — one that travels through the tops of the trees — go a half a mile in a matter of just a few seconds. The smoke column from Table Mountain went up to 43,000 feet!”

He adds, “The Taylor Bridge fire was also very active. Something different was happening in that area each day and fires were blowing up in different parts and in different directions.”

D’Ambrosia explains that firefighters must always adhere to a system of checks to ensure safety. There needs to be a lookout posted at all times, communications in place and functioning, escape routes designated and clear safety zones.

“You have to have your antenna up when you’re out there,” he says.

During their deployments, the firefighters worked on average13 hours a day, seven days a week.

Living conditions, according to D’Ambrosia, were often crowded.

In Cle Elum, for example, the middle school was used as a base site for nearly 900 people.

“You live in a tent,” explains D’Ambrosia, “and your day starts at 5 a.m. when you have a briefing, check equipment, get breakfast and head out. You’re out all day and don’t get back until sometimes 8:30 at night. Then you hit the showers, have some dinner and go to bed, just to wake up and do it again the next morning. It’s like Groundhog Day and you lose track of time after a while.”

The types of activities D’Ambrosia and the other members in his crew were involved in included holding the line for burnouts, wrapping houses with fire resistant blankets, spraying fire resistant gel on cabins, cutting limbs on trees and removing bushes that were too close to structures, cutting hand line, laying miles of hose and setting up sprinklers around dwellings to protect them.

“There were some people who lived over there who were very prepared,” notes D’Ambrosia.

“Others weren’t. Those who were prepared knew the extent of damage that fire can cause because they’d most likely seen it before. I think until you actually see the devastation from fire, you can’t grasp it. You don’t realize how quickly a situation can change and get out of control.”

D’Ambrosia is glad that he and his fellow firefighters were able to be a resource in the recent fires.

“Feeling that you can make an impact is one of the reasons I got into firefighting,” he comments. “It’s very rewarding to know that you’ve been able to help people.”

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