Illinois firefighting team returns from western wildfires

Local firefighter returns from fighting California wildfires

ILLINOIS (KFVS) - As wildfires continue to rage out west, firefighters from right here in the Heartland are being sent to help. A crew of 20 Illinoisan firefighters just returned from a 19-day deployment to the Grassy Ridge Fire in Idaho and the Dollar Ridge Fire in Utah.

Ben Snyder is a forester for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources who was a part of that team. He says the call to action was quick, as they are taking as many resources as they can to fight those wildfires.

"When we got called up - which happened in about less than a minute this year - our crew got a call that said, 'hey, we need you to go to Idaho,'" he said.

He says they are far different than your standard house fire you would see back here.

"Out there, the flames lengths are typically higher, the fuels are drier, and you're working around trees that have the potential to torch and you may see flame lengths 80 to 100 feet," he said.

He says his crew and others regularly see up lookout posts to view the fire from afar. This is to check how the flames are moving and any other hazards,  such as those trees catching fire falling near crews.

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When Snyder and his crew left, he says there were about 200 people at the operation. There were multiple crews with different jobs like fire engine crews, water trucks, and air support for surveillance and dropping water on large areas.

His team was a hand crew, meaning they are right on the fire line digging and keeping the fire contained.

The gear they carried comes in a kit that weighs about 40 pounds according to Snyder.

"You pretty much have to be self-sustaining for the entire day, carrying around enough water and food with you," he said.

The clothing they wear is much lighter than a structural firefighter's, but they're still flame resistant. Snyder says they need to be lighter because the outdoor temperatures are around 90 to 100 degrees without the heat from flames.

They also have to carry around hand tools. Snyder says his favorite is a polaski, which is essentially an ax with a hoe for digging on the other side of the head.

Snyder says some days there's not a lot of breaks for these firefighters, but despite all the work they put in, the fire spread from around 58,000 acres when they arrived to around 71,000 acres when they left.

Despite seeing so much destruction, Snyder says he likes to look at what comes after the flames.

"Even areas that we went through that looked totally scorched, you could see plants resprouting and starting to regrow," he said, "and that process starts almost immediately.

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