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The City Journals

When wildfires blaze, these West Valley firefighters respond

Feb 25, 2019 11:41AM ● By Travis Barton

West Valley City firefighters worked to save houses and put out fires in Thousand Oaks last year. (Photo Courtesy Chuck Cruz)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

Captain Chuck Cruz was in Thousand Oaks, California last year. Not to visit family or take a vacation, but to help stop the devastating fires blazing through the state. 

“That fire was moving so fast that people caught up in it weren't even able to run away,” Cruz recalled. 

Over the past few years, Cruz, Sean Hoffman, Kevin Pagel, Nick Herzog and many other members of the West Valley City Fire Department have deployed to fight wildfires in both California and Payson, Utah. 

The department is in a good position to assist these emergencies. Spearheaded by Deputy Chief Chris Beichner, leaders with WVCFD have led four-man crews to help with these disasters. 

“They’re the kind of guys that want to help,” said Fire Chief John Evans. “It’s just in their DNA.” 

Cruz is a seasoned veteran. He also works for the Department of Health and Human Services as a deputy commander for a disaster medical assistance team—an international federal team. That means he’s been deployed for both fire, hurricane and other medical related instances. 

Cruz lists Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi as places deployed. He estimated it’s been 16 or 17 times he’s gone. That’s over a career spanning to 1982. 

Pagel, who joined the department 14 years ago after retiring as a driver from Fed Ex, has deployed twice. 

Whether it’s been two or 17 times, there’s a lot that goes into a deployment. Cruz and Pagel recently sat down with the West Valley Journal to talk about it all. 

The certifications required to go 

Plenty of training and certifications are required to be eligible to go battle wildland fires. In the fire service, it never stops. 

To be deployed, a firefighter must have all their structure and wildland certifications. A wildland certification must be renewed each year in March where they have to pass a physical agility test, online course and in-house classes. This includes training for confined spaces, rope rescue, trench rescue, high angle rescue, swift water rescue and heavy collapse rescue. 

Just to name a few. 

All the extra work to specialize comes either on a firefighter’s day off or if they traded shifts with someone. This earns them a “red card” meaning they are wildland eligible to go battle a Pole Creek Fire or Thomas Fire

It is above and beyond what’s required, according to Cruz. He said some firefighters are happy to work two days, respond to calls and go home. 

“Then there's type-A guys like us, who if you leave us sitting still long enough, we're gonna get in trouble,” joked Cruz, who has additional certifications in Urban Search and Rescue. 

Of the more than 100 firefighters in West Valley City, 38 have “red cards” or are deployable firefighters. 

“Having them not only helps out there,” Evans said. “Their experience helps just as much here.” 

They must be prepared for 21 days if called upon. In Pagel’s bedroom right now, he has a tech rescue bag with harnesses and rope, and a wildland bag with extra boots, socks and underwear ready to go. 

What fighting wildfires means

What do the firefighters do on these deployments? Whatever is asked of them. Even if it means loading up homeowners’ vehicles as they evacuate the area. 

In Payson, crews did structure protection. Any trees close to houses were cut down. For any house bordering wildland, crews would lay down hoses on either side. They laid down 15,000 feet of hose. 

“We were building giant sprinkler systems is what we were doing,” Cruz said. 

Crews did structure protection in California too, cutting down trees or removing any flammable brush away from homes. Some jobs were to cut fire lines leading away from a house to create a back burn, meant to ensure the fire would burn away from the house. 

They had to determine which houses were defensible. One house had 10 cords of wood on the back porch, if it catches fire, there wouldn’t be enough water to put it out. It couldn’t be saved. Any houses under construction next to a home that caught fire wouldn’t survive. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Charlie Sheen had houses burned down.  

Fire could spread up to 1,000 feet a minute. The fire seen here engulfs the hillside in Woodland Hills. (Photo Courtesy Chuck Cruz)

“Most of the time your hands are tied,” Pagel said. “If you're in this neighborhood and you see that neighborhood burning, you can't freelance and go over there.” 

Pagel also spent a lot of time walking. In California, hollowed out trees would burn for days, “like a chimney,” Pagel said. At night, planes would fly overhead with a thermal image camera to locate the ones still burning. Pagel hiked three to four miles up and down ravines to find these “hotspots” and cut them down. All this while carrying 30-pound packs of food, water, the chainsaw, gas and extra parts for the chainsaws. 

Hiking continued for Pagel. After the fire is out, his crew had to pick up 3.5 miles of hose line that stretched from a mountain peak down to its bench. 

Charred remains and Alfred Hitchcock scenes 

Countless moments stand out to firefighters from the weeks-long experience of battling a burning blaze. Deciding which houses to save can be a tough situation, let alone when the homeowner is present. 

Cruz recalled a time in Utah County last year when police brought homeowners with them to ask which houses could be saved. 

“Well, we've written that one off, we can't even save that,” Cruz remembers saying. Then a lady started crying. “And I'm like, ‘(expletive) it's your house, isn't it?’” 

The lady’s husband was a military armorer. The house was filled with ammo and guns. 

“Stay away from that house because it’s going to blow up,” Cruz said. 

Fire moves fast. Especially when three-foot high dry grass catches fire with the right wind conditions. Pagel said it was traveling 1,000 feet a minute. 

“You could actually see it go,” he said. “It's different because you can't do anything about it. When you're on a house fire here, you have 12-15 guys, we can make something happen.” 

Pagel said the mindset is very different from working on a house fire in WVC. “It’s a different type of fire because it can come up and kill you.” 

“And everyone around you,” Cruz added. 

Devastation covered thousands of miles in California with all kinds of victims. Cruz said he saw what looked like large rodents, fields and fields of them. 

“The fire moved through so fast that as we would go through these fields, you would just see them skeletonized, burned mid stride, trying to run away,” he said. “Everywhere you look, there's just all of these black statues of these rat-like creatures.” 

It’s not just the animals who were charred. Everything was charred. 

“Can’t even hear a bird chirp,” Pagel said. “It’s just dead quiet, dark, stinky.” 

“It’s Alfred Hitchcock-ish,” Cruz added. 

“It looked like a nuclear bomb went off, there’s nothing left,” Pagel concluded. 

Every morning from their camp it looked like a bomb went off. Pagel said it’s called a pyro cumulus cloud that would suck the moisture into the fire and burn. The moisture then gets into the clouds and when it can’t hold anymore, it drops all at once and flattens out. 

“But when you're underneath it and it does that,” he said, “you can just feel it’s a little bit colder and then all of sudden you feel that heat drop back down on you.”

While everything’s burnt, ash covers the ground. When firefighters took a break to rest, they oftentimes napped on the ash, “which was quite comfortable,” Pagel said. 

Fire is not only fast, but also fickle. Depending on how winds shift, a fire’s precision can be surgical. Cruz has pictures of two houses six feet apart. On the left, the charred house is all over the ground. But on the right, not even the bushes were singed. Cruz explained where the burned house was built, there is a draw in the hill behind it that created a “vortex” for the wind—leading right to the home. 

The people

One memorable aspect for the firefighters are the friends they find from other departments in their task force. After weeks of hiking together, sharing water, telling jokes, carrying their equipment and teasing one another; it’s easy to form a bond. 

They even worked side by side with prisoners in orange jumpsuits doing the same thing. Pagel said the camaraderie extended to everyone. 

Pagel’s task force in California was led by Matthew Burchett, the Draper firefighter who died fighting the wildfire last year. 

“It was crazy to see 200 inmates lined up on the side of the road saluting (Burchett),” he said. 

But there were special moments for the firefighters. Ones that Cruz will always remember. Whether it was a young lady in Santa Cruz who left food and drinks for them in her house or the lines of signs thanking them for their work. 

“We couldn't walk into a Starbucks and buy our own coffee, people wouldn't let us,” Cruz said. 

One night before they left California they were eating dinner at a restaurant when they asked for the check. The waitress said no. 

Everybody in the restaurant had paid their tab.