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Oswego, Aurora residents on state crew dispatched to battle wildfires

The Illinois Interagecy Fire Crew poses for phofront 'Chicago Stump'. The sequoitree itself was cut down 1893 sent Worlds Fair

The Illinois Interagecy Fire Crew poses for a photo in front of the "Chicago Stump". The sequoia tree itself was cut down in 1893 and sent to the Worlds Fair in Chicago. The group recently returned from fighting wildfires in the Sequoia National Forest in Porterville, California. | Photo courtesy~Tom Gargrave

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Updated: November 30, 2012 11:10AM

While the Jawbone Canyon fire is not among the biggest or most dangerous blazes that has raged through California, its appetite is still staggering. The fire was sparked by an Aug. 10 lightning strike, then spread through the Mojave Desert canyon, ripping through more than 12,000 acres.

As incredible as that area is, it could have been much worse if not for wildlife firefighters, including an Illinois crew that worked by hand to contain the blaze.

Stefanie Fitzsimons of Aurora and Tom Gargrave of Oswego were part of the Illinois Interagency Fire Team that spent more than two weeks patrolling for fire and digging containment trenches. The days were long, the conditions were hazardous and the work was exhausting.

And it was all exhilarating, the Fox Valley residents said.

“It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Fitzsimons. “We helped save homes and natural resources that needed to be saved.”

The Illinois Interagency Fire Team — sometimes called the Wildland Fire Crew — is a team of 20 forest rangers, naturalists, private citizens and a few ex-firemen who are on-call for large blazes in forests or other wildlife areas. Few of the members are traditional firefighters.

Fitzsimons, 29, a 2002 grad of West Aurora High School, is a former intern at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources who is now a private consultant. Gargrave, the 51-year-old squad leader who graduated from Oswego High School, is a forester for the Department of Natural Resources.

They all went through rigorous training (including a 3-mile hike with a 45-pound backpack) that qualified them for this unique assignment. The team members’ backgrounds in conservation reflect their interest in properly controlling the fire and preserving the wildlife, not simply extinguishing the flames.

Call to California

There are many of these teams in the United States — most of them in the West, where the blistering heat, high winds and vast unsettled areas make wildfires almost routine. But when the fires are so big, or there are so many fires at once, the call goes out for mutual assistance from other states’ wildfire teams.

That’s why the Illinois’ team headed to California on Aug. 8. At the time, several fires had been burning in various locations for weeks, and relief was needed. The Illinois team was first assigned to Kernville, Calif., where the fire was wrapping up. The team was then sent to patrol Sequoia National Forest to search for fire outbreaks and do fuel reduction, which means removing as much dry burnable materials as possible.

Finally, the crew ended up in Jawbone, a massive canyon that got its name for its resemblance to a mandible bone. The canyon had once been home to sporadic gold miners, but now is mostly used by off-road drivers who enjoy the vast open territory.

‘All very calculated’

While helicopters and fire crews dropped water on the front lines of the blaze, the Illinois crew’s assignment was to walk through areas that had already burned, searching for possible hot spots that could flare up and reignite a new fire. That means spreading out and walking through a massive blackened landscape.

“You move very slowly. It’s like moving an army,” Gargrave said. “It’s all very calculated.”

Each person walks along using an old-fashioned heat detection device — the back of their hand — to determine if there are heated coals under the ground, ready to ignite if additional oxygen is introduced.

Wildlife firefighting has challenges that urban firefighters don’t usually encounter. Wildlife flames are not generally very tall; they are sometimes just a few feet high. But that’s tall enough to make it almost impossible to douse them with water dumps directly on the flames.

Gargrave points out that you can’t get very close to a 4-foot-high campfire. Imagine a wall of campfires, that can run in unexpected directions based on the angle of the terrain and subtle wind shifts that can cause the fire to run in unexpected directions.

“A wildland firefighter is on his own,” Gargrave said. “A wildland firefighter is moving and chasing. The vastness and remoteness makes it a very dangerous situation.”

Fighting wildlife fires is an art, not an assault, with teams moving in front and behind the flames, trying to keep them from residential and commercials areas, while allowing the fire to take a natural course when necessary.

Fire re-energizing

These relatively small fires are good for the forest, helping clear out dead matter, culling out invasive species and dropping nutrients back into the soil. In the end, the fire is re-energizing.

After two weeks of fire work, the Illinois Interagency Fire Team team can say the same.

“I’m just blessed to be part of this,” Gargrave said. “It’s kind of nice to know that you, for lack of a better term, helped someone.”

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