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Area firefighters battle western blazes

A wildfire burns in Tollgate Canyon in Summit County on Monday, July 30, 2018, near Park City, Utah. (Kristin Murphy/Deseret News, via AP)

Local resident Sam Raisch is among seven people from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry, District 16, at Wellsboro, aiding in efforts to contain wildfires in the western part of the country.

According to his mother, Shirley Raisch, her son already has been to two fires in Utah and currently is at a third in that state.

The first, Middle Canyon Fire, is close to Salt Lake City. Conditions were rocky and steep and the vegetation was more like mountain laurel, Shirley Raisch said. At one point the crew was fighting fires at 7,000 feet above sea level, she said.

The second fire was a Cedar Mountain near the same urban areas, whereas the fire they are at now, Hansel Point, is in the desert. The weather they battle is almost as extreme as the fires, with temperatures in the high 90s to low 100s.

Hansel Point fire, where Sam Raisch is now, has burned over 4,000 acres and is about 70 percent contained.

Living conditions for the firefighters also are extreme, with long days and no chance for basic amenities like showers.

“One day they worked until 3 a.m. so they just crashed in a cow pasture and woke up at dawn,” she said.

Sam Raisch is expected back in the state by the end of this week, she said, although he will first go to Harrisburg for debriefing before returning to Williamsport.

Sam Raisch, who studied forestry at The Pennsylvania College of Technology, is a graduate of Williamsport Area High School and is employed by DCNR in Wellsboro. He is part of a group of five regular employees and two people who have been brought on to help the firefighting effort, according to Brian Plum, forest fire specialist supervisor with the department in Wellsboro.

Plum, who has been fighting fires for about 23 years, said he has just returned from Texas where he manned a fire engine. Others from his district, like Sam Raisch, have been in Utah.

In order to be a part of the firefighting teams, the members must be certified each year, Raisch said.

On the firelines, the firefighters are divided into crews of 20 people, according to Plum. Each position has a different quality, he added.

There are fallers, armed with chainsaws and a crew boss. They go in and clear firebreaks to try to slow down the progression of the fires, he said. Other firefighters are armed with shovels and hand tools, such as a pulaski, which is an axe on one side and is used in constructing firebreaks.

The average time that firefighters stay on the firelines is 14 days, with two days of travel time to and from the sites of the fires. The groups spend about 17 to 18 days away from home, Plum said.

Compared to fires in California, Plum said the ones in Utah are much smaller. He added that one Wellsboro firefighter is in California manning a fire engine.

“They’re smaller and didn’t reach the complexity of those,” he said.

Plum noted that a shortage of volunteers is one of the problems faced when fighting fires.

The names of the remaining Wellsboro firefighters will not be made public until they return home, according to Plum.

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