GOLD BAR — One has 25 years’ experience fighting fires.
Another on the crew hasn’t been out of high school long. Michael Intonti, 19, saw his first palm tree at the Mendocino Complex Fire in northern California in July.
Snohomish County Fire District 26, serving Gold Bar and Index, routinely sends teams to wildfires around the western United States. One group recently spent more than two weeks in California.
For much of that time, they were working in 100-plus degree heat to protect homes, land and their fellow firefighters. Between 24-hour shifts, they slept in trailers, in bunks stacked three high. And they were all too close to the risks that firefighters face: A Utah battalion chief from their camp died in the line of duty.
For those in Gold Bar, the wildfires were a chance to help people but also for the younger team members to gain real-world experience. District 26 is mostly volunteer and relies on training and education opportunities to attract applicants.
There’s more demand for their time than ever, Fire Chief Eric Andrews said. And yet a wrinkle in state law could cut off similar responses to other major emergencies besides wildfires.
Andrews coordinates sending those resources from the northwest region of Washington state, including Snohomish County.
He’s part of a statewide system, called fire mobilization, that covers reimbursement for the participating departments. That system came under scrutiny in 2014 — when help was denied after the deadly Oso mudslide. Fire chiefs for years had been saying the law needed to be extended to “all hazards,” including disasters. They got the statute amended in 2015, but the change sunsets at the end of 2019.
If lawmakers don’t make it permanent, support would once again be limited to fires. The chiefs are lobbying to get that fixed.
This summer alone, California asked for 100 fire engines from other states. Washington had 15 available. The rest were needed at home.
Gold Bar’s Intonti and Jacob Curti, 21, joined the department this past April.
Fire Lt. Andrew Anderson, 52, knew they hadn’t been to many big scenes — especially wildfires. He has traveled to quite a few in his 25 years in the fire service.
“We were prepping them up,” he said. “You’re going to see something you’ve never seen before.”
The young men were carrying 40-pound packs and cutting paths into a brushy hillside, with elevation gain akin to hiking to the top of Wallace Falls. After every shift, their gear had to be decontaminated from poison oak.
By nightfall, regardless of age or physical fitness, everyone’s ankles were swollen from the heat, Anderson said.
“We’re from Washington,” he said. “We’re not used to that … It was like a furnace blasting us.
“These kids were absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “They constantly said, ‘Living the dream, L.T., living the dream.’ ”
The crews were moved by the generosity and compassion they were shown, even from those who lost houses, pets and valuables. At least once, the team had to tell someone their home was gone.
There were shooting columns of flames — the most Anderson had ever seen.
Assistant Chief Ernie Walters, 46, remembers telling someone: “The fire takes what it wants, and it leaves what it wants.”
When they had down time, Anderson and others made sure that Intonti and Curti got to see a bit of California. They made a stop at In-N-Out. (The young firefighters liked the treat but decided they prefer Dick’s Drive-In.)
Anderson was sent home early after breaking his foot on the job. The other folks from Gold Bar didn’t return until Aug. 16.
“My dogs tackled me, and then my wife tackled me,” Walters said.
Intonti carried back a gift for his sister Anna, 7: A giant pine cone.
The firefighters fully expect to deploy on another wildfire before the season is out.
Intonti and Curti are keeping their bags ready. This time, they know what to expect.
“It’s cool that you can help out,” Intonti said. “There’s not a lot of places that would send a 19-year-old out to another state.”
“You get a feeling of fulfillment, of going out and knowing you can help people and you get a chance to actually do that,” Curti said. “You can prove yourself, to yourself and to your crew.”
They are grateful for the support they saw, especially through social media, keeping them connected to home. They knew prayers were coming their way, Anderson said, and their loved ones were kept up to date.
Or, as Intonti put it: “Don’t want Ma to worry.”
By the numbers
• In 2015, Snohomish County firefighters went to 17 major wildfires statewide.
• Last year, the northwest region of Washington, including Snohomish County, sent firefighters to 19 Washington wildfires and four more in Oregon and California. So far this year, they’ve been to 12 Washington fires, in addition to California.
• The strike team that recently went to California included folks from Everett, District 7 in Clearview, District 22 in Getchell, District 26 in Gold Bar and South County Fire. They were led by Getchell Assistant Fire Chief Jeremy Stocker.
• Firefighters need special training to deploy on wildfires, and their agencies are reimbursed for their work. The fire districts in Getchell and Gold Bar send out the most resources from this region, said Eric Andrews, a fire chief who coordinates the efforts.
“There is hardly ever a team that goes out that does not have District 22 and District 26 units on it,” he said.