They were putting in 16-hour shifts fighting wildfires. The terrain was steep, the temperatures high, and there was no break for two straight weeks.
But state Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers and other DEC employees who just returned from fighting the raging forest fires on the California coast said Tuesday they’d do it again.
“It’s both mentally and physically challenging,” said Dave Kallen, 31, of Northville, a forest ranger who was the crew boss of the 20-member team. “But it’s a very gratifying experience.”
The team of federally certified wildfire firefighters from across the state went to California on July 11 to help firefighters there cope with what is already one of the most active fire seasons in memory.
Tuesday afternoon, after a charter flight to Harrisburg, Pa., and a bus trip from there, they returned to turn in their equipment at the state’s storage site at the state Tree Nursery off Route 50.
The men fought the Big Sur fire in the Los Padres National Forest, about 150 miles south of San Francisco. The fire burned more than 162,000 acres. Started by lightning on June 21, it was 30 percent contained when the New York crew arrived and was only declared contained this past Sunday evening, according to a Web site run by the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.
“This was a particularly active fire. It spread very fast. The fire was very big,” said Kallen, who has deployed to Western fires several times in the past. “We observed flame heights of 30 to 100 feet.”
The crew from New York was among about 1,900 firefighters from across the country — and even overseas — who pitched in to fight the Los Padres fire, one of the biggest in California.
The New York crew mostly held fire lines created by bulldozers that had cleared vegetation to create a fire break, or worked on extinguishing hot spots after the fire had passed through an area.
The working conditions were extreme, at least by East Coast standards. The Los Padres National Forest is full of steep hills, and the humidity was so low that firefighters were constantly warned to keep hydrated.
“It was really steep out there. It was hot. The temperatures were in the 90s,” said Josh Borst, 29, of Schoharie, who is a state forester based at DEC’s Stamford office in Delaware County.
It was Borst’s first deployment to a major Western fire, but such summertime deployments by DEC employees — whether to California, Oregon, Idaho or elsewhere — have become almost routine in recent years.
The costs — which can be a couple of hundred thousand dollars in overtime, travel and other expenses — are reimbursed by the U.S. Forest Service, said Col. Andrew Jacob, assistant director of the state forest rangers.
Fires continue to burn in other parts of California, including near Yosemite National Park. The conventional high-fire-danger season in the West is still ahead. The state has suffered from a prolonged drought that has left its forests dry and fire-prone.
“It’s highly likely for New York to send more crews,” Jacob said. “We could send another crew as quick as later this week.”
Jacob said the firefighting knowledge the men got in California, along with experience in critical incident command, will be helpful if there’s ever a major fire in New York state.
“We have the potential in New York, especially in the Adirondack Park,” Jacob said. “The fuel is there, and in the past there have been dry conditions.”
All 134 state forest rangers are trained for federal firefighting, along with about 40 other DEC employees, most of them foresters.
The New York team was deployed at the request of the federal government, which coordinates major wildlfire responses between states. In all, the men were away from their families and jobs for about three weeks.
Dan Gaidasz of Sloansville is also a forester at the DEC Stamford office who worked on the team as a firefighter and squad-boss trainee. The 20 firefighters were divided into three squads.
“They were a great crew. We got along well,” said Gaidasz, 33, who in previous years was deployed to fight fires in Oregon. “When you eat, sleep and work together 16 hours a day for two weeks, you have a really tight bond.”
Gaidasz faced the additional challenge of being allergic to poison oak in an area where the plant is common, and he had to seek treatment for exposure.
The sheer size of the fire, and number of fires burning around the state, could have been overwhelming, Gaidasz acknowledged.
“There were so many fires on a large scale, we really had to see ourselves as part of a bigger picture and concentrate on the mission we were given,” he said.