Delaware team off to fight Colorado wildfires

Mark Kammer of Magnolia gets a kiss goodbye from his wife Charlene before being deployed to Colorado to battle wildfires. A team of 20 left Blackbird State Forest near Smyrna on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

SMYRNA — While most Delawareans were celebrating Independence Day on Wednesday, a trained 20-person volunteer wildfire crew with the Delaware Forest Service was traveling to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain region to battle forest fires.

The group was called into action as a spate of uncontained large fires in the West have increased the demand for trained firefighters, according to the Delaware Forest Service.

The National Fire Preparedness Level was increased to 3 on a 5-point scale on June 29, indicating that wildfire activity is occurring in multiple geographic areas and mobilization of resources through national agencies is moderate to heavy.

That led to the Delaware firefighters mobilizing on Tuesday at Blackbird State Forest in Smyrna before traveling to Denver from Philadelphia on the Fourth of July for positioning in the Rocky Mountain-area, which has reported five new fires and had six uncontained large fires.

The crew that traveled to Colorado included: Hannah Small, Paul Moser, Christopher Valenti, Bill Seybold and Bart Wilson, all from Dover; Mark Kammer and Dan Mihok, from Magnolia; Nathaniel Sommers, Smyrna; Jeff Wilson, Clayton; Eddie Boyer, Ellendale; Erich Burkentine, Milton; Zach Brown, Harbeson; Rocco Hladney, Middletown; Michael Martini, Townsend; Adam Keever, Monica Testa, Andrew Doug Rawling, Dave Pro and Ryan Krammes, all from Newark; and Maryland’s Sam Topper, who heads the outfit.

The 20 volunteers said goodbye to their families and friends and got their gear weighed and organized for the flight to Colorado on Tuesday. A crew’s average deployment out of state runs roughly 14 days on average, not counting travel days.

Hannah Small of Dover packs her gear at the Blackbird State Forest near Smyrna on Tuesday.

The firefighters’ efforts did not go unnoticed by Gov. John Carney on Thursday as he posted on Twitter, “Yesterday, 20 members of the @DelawareForests wildfire crew left for Colorado to help fight #wildfires. I’m proud of the volunteers and agency personnel who make up our wildfire crew, and I’m confident they will provide much-needed assistance.”

Nationally, 66 fires are currently burning a total of 578,424 acres. As of Tuesday, a total of 277 wildfire crews were deployed across all regions of the U.S. and wildfire activity is expected to increase.

That’s why the firefighters from Delaware were called into action.

The team of 20 from Delaware will get broken down into three squads of five to seven members each when they arrive in Colorado.

All the volunteers have a minimum of 36 hours spent in classroom time and 10 hours in the field to train for fighting wildfires.

Bill Seybold of Dover carries his gear at the Blackbird State Forest near Smyrna. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

It can be a difficult and dangerous battle that awaits the wildfire crew.

The Federal Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations, or ‘Red Book,’ states, “Fire is a complex, dynamic, and often unpredictable phenomenon. Fire operations require mobilizing a complex organization that includes management, command, support and firefighting personnel, as well as aircraft, vehicles, machinery, and communications equipment.

“While the magnitude and complexity of the fire itself and of the human response to it will vary, the fact that fire operations are inherently dangerous will never change. A firefighter utilizing the best available science, equipment, training and working within the scope of agency doctrine and policy, can still suffer serious injury or death.”

This is the third consecutive year that Delaware has sent a firefighting crew to the Rocky Mountain region.

The wildfire crews are trained and dispatched by the Delaware Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and are comprised of men and women of varying ages and backgrounds who represent a mix of public agencies, nonprofit groups, volunteer fire companies and private citizens.

Since 1996, the DDA Forest Service has trained more than 600 volunteer firefighters to be part of the 20-person crews it deploys on out-of-state wildfire assignments.

Delaware firefighters have traveled to fires in many states, including: Alaska, California, Georgia, Idaho, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

Zach Brown of Harbeson packs his gear at the Blackbird State Forest near Smyrna on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The First State has also sent personnel to aid in national or regional emergencies, such as hurricane relief efforts in Florida in 2004 and New York in 2011.

Despite its small size, Delaware has earned an outstanding reputation on the national firefighting scene.

In fact, Gov. Carney and Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Delaware Forest Service at last year’s Delaware State Fair in Harrington, honoring last year’s wildfire fighting crew in the process.

Gov. Carney said, “Delaware’s wildfire crew is a group of well-trained volunteers and public servants who will leave the safety and comfort of their homes to travel across the country in an effort to help Western states battle wildfires.

“I’m confident that the crew will provide much needed assistance to our friends out West, and I am proud of the volunteers and agency personnel who make up the Forest Service’s wildfire crew. Thank you to the crew for your service, and I wish everyone a safe return home.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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