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Draper-based hotshot crew battles blaze in its home state

Published August 18, 2013 12:17 am

High stakes • Having homes at risk raised the pressure for firefighters more used to battling blazes in remote areas.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Wanship •The 21 members of the Twin Peaks hotshot crew arrived at the Rockport 5 Fire Wednesday. It was their 11th consecutive day of firefighting, and they began by hiking 2.5 miles to the southwest flank of the blaze. Then they spent the next 14 hours shoveling, hacking and cutting a two-foot strip of bare land just inches from the flames.

During a conversation Saturday evening, Twin Peaks superintendent Lyle Jennings said his Draper-based crew was called to the blaze after fighting fires in Wyoming and Idaho. As "hotshots," or the elite and highly trained fire fighters who specialize in difficult tasks, they mostly managed themselves. Jennings said that after arriving, they realized they needed to establish an anchor point from which to attack the blaze, so they chose the southwest area near the Promontory neighborhood.

Jennings' crew carried all their gear, water and tools up the mountain. The idea, he explained, is to be able to dig a line that the fire can't cross. To do that, they have to remove brush and weeds, as well as roots and other underground fuel that could smolder and possibly allow the fire to jump the line.

It's a grueling task. Saturday, soot clung to Jennings' beard. His yellow Nomex shirt — standard issue for wildland firefighters — was more grey and brown. His hands were caked with dirt, which he said happens because fire fighters constantly use the backs of their hands to check for heat in the brush.

The crew also follows a breakneck schedule. Jennings said they get two days off for every 14 worked. During workdays, they get little sleep and no showers.

"We just have to push through that stuff," he said.

But despite the challenges, Jennings said when his crew found out about the Rockport 5 Fire, they were particularly interested because it was burning in their home state. After the first day, they worked on "mop up," which Jennings described as the "nuts and bolts" of firefighting that includes beating down any potential flare ups. They also had to go in and clean up fire lines cut by bulldozers, which Jennings said are good but initially leave greenery intact that can eventually ignite.

Jennings said the Rockport 5 Fire stood out because it was particularly hot and dry, especially for so late in the year when it usually becomes cooler in the mountains. He also said his crew more often fights fires in more remote areas and having homes threatened raised the stakes and the stress.

Other challenges included extremely low humidity, a lack of cloud cover and oak brush, which he said burns dirty and dangerously.

"We have to be really heads up in dry oak brush," he added.

As the fire was winding down Saturday — officials reported 58 percent containment and no smoke was visible from nearby roads — the efforts of Jennings and his crew seemed to be paying off. He praised the locally based commanders of the fire and the local fire crews. Though the threat wasn't over Saturday, he added that the fight had thus far been a tactical success.

Community members seemed to agree. At media staging areas during the week, residents frequently approached fire personnel to thank them. In Coalville, about 10 miles down the road, a sidewalk statue was dressed in Nomex fire gear and a thank you sign was placed at its feet.

Before heading in for the night Saturday, Jennings stressed that one of the best ways to protect a home from wildfire is to create "defensible space," or a perimeter without brush and fuel. Jennings and other area fire authorities have worked with homeowners to create defensible space, and he said that during the Rockport 5 Fire it made a difference.

In addition to keeping flames away from homes, defensible space gives fire crews a place to occupy during the fight. He added that while it can be hard to cut down trees and other plants in the immediate area around a home it can also mean the difference between a home that survives a fire and one that doesn't.

jdalrymple@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jimmycdii

Twitter: @jimmycdii