While Rae Brooks was assigned to the Happy Camp Complex of fires in northwest California she wrote this story about a crew from Saipan that was working on the fire. The photos were taken by Kari Greer.
Saipan firefighters usually battle scrubby mango and banana tree fires that last a day or two and burn less than five acres. For a month this summer, 15 firefighters from the tiny Pacific island broke in new boots while working on major wildfires in northern California.
The cold, dry night air, the 16-hour work days and the new boots took their toll, but the Saipan crew still raved about their month-long assignment.
“We all have busted-up feet, we’re sick, but we loved it anyway,” said crew member Derek Gersonde. “It’s a great learning experience.”
The Saipan crew flew to California in mid-August as part of a U.S. Forest Service program that brings wildland firefighters to the U.S. mainland to help out when fires are active and resources stretched. In a matter of days, the crew switched abruptly from their sea-level home of sandy beaches and coral reefs to the rugged mountains of northern California.
After being issued wildland fire-fighting gear — and buying wildland boots, which aren’t stocked in Saipan stores — they started building line at the French Fire on the Sierra National Forest.
Crew boss trainee Alle Recor found the crew tended at first to operate on “island time” and lacked the sense of readiness of the wildland world. On Saipan, fires are close by and easy to reach. But, with a little coaching, that soon changed, said Recor. She found the crew motivated, and eager to have fun and get the job done.
Thirteen of the 15 crew members, who range in age from 22 to 48, work primarily as structural firefighters and are qualified medics for the Saipan Department of Public Safety’s Division of Fire. Although wildland firefighting was a new world, the crew understood fire behavior from their structural background, Recor said. Two others were part of a 2008 Saipan crew that fought wildland fires in California
The crew’s fitness and ability to learn new skills quickly impressed crew boss Tyler Van Ormer, who normally works as a battalion chief with the National Forests of Mississippi.
“The guys catch on so quickly that sometimes I forget how green they are,” said Van Ormer. “You only have to show them once and it’s like they’re old hands at it.”
When Van Ormer got word of his assignment, he had to search Google to confirm the island was actually part of the United States. Saipan is the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, three-quarters of the way between Hawaii and the Philippines.
Instructors from the western United States travel to Saipan each April to provide basic wildland fire-fighting training. Selection to the wildland crew is competitive for course graduates. While wildfires do occur on Saipan, which is smaller than Rhode Island, they are usually caught quickly.
“It’s such a small island that a fire usually runs into a structure and slows down,” said Gersonde. “We don’t have these huge vast mountain ranges that just blow up. You come here and see how fast a fire can run.”
After the French Fire, the crew spent two weeks at the Happy Camp Complex on the Klamath National Forest.
To help hone their practical firefighting skills, five of the Saipan crew embedded with the Sierra Hotshots and some of the hotshots worked with the Saipan crew. The hotshots emphasized safety and proper technique. After a break, the crew returned to Happy Camp for a second stint. They flew home Sept. 17.
Crew boss Van Ormer lauded the Saipan crew’s work ethic.
“They’re disciplined, they’re nice, they’re polite,” said Van Ormer. “If they don’t know something, they ask. I’ve never heard a complaint. They’re the easiest guys I’ve ever worked with.”
The organizational structure behind fighting a big fire boggled the Saipan crew. When they returned to the Happy Camp Complex, 75 crews, 14 helicopters, 108 engines, 20 dozers and 50 water-tenders were working on the fire, which now sprawls over more than 200 square miles.
The entire island of Saipan is only 1,400 square miles.
After exposure to large-scale fires, some crew members find themselves contemplating a new career path in wildland firefighting on the U.S. mainland.
“A lot of us have it on our minds,” said Gersonde.