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Utah firefighters head out to fight California infernos

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WEST VALLEY CITY — While there isn’t a shortage of wildfires in Utah, local fire agencies are lending the help of 35 brave men and women who are badly needed in California right now.

“We’re concerned they have more on their hands than they can handle,” said Lone Peak Fire Chief Reed Thompson, who was among those packing up their gear to head out on Saturday. “We like to help a neighbor out.”

He and his colleagues were briefed on the intensifying wildfire situation in California, but also cautioned to avoid areas where protests and social unrest are occurring, as well as other unexpected conditions caused by the ongoing pandemic.

“It’s a weird year. Mother Nature has been throwing some curveballs at us,” said Provo Fire and Rescue Capt. Daniel “Bull” Cather, who said he’s wanted to be a firefighter since he was young.

“It’s the thrill of the job,” he said. “Anymore though, it’s the fact we’re helping others. The biggest gratification is that we’re making a difference in someone else’s lives. We’re there to help.”

Most of the 35 firefighters who departed Utah for California on Saturday are aware of what they’re going into, having fought fires there before. Utah lost a firefighter — Matthew Burchett, a former Draper battalion chief — when a tree fell on him during the massive Ranch Fire in August of 2018.

Even with the risks, Draper fire Battalion Chief Cody Jolley said he can’t see himself doing anything different.

“We face dangers here all the time, in our own cities. It’s something we face every day,” he said. “But there are different dangers out there.”

In California, nearly 12,000 firefighters are battling blazes that have scorched more than 1,200 square miles so far, the Associated Press reports. The conditions are rough, and Jolley said, the terrain is much different than what is found in Utah.

“It’s a different fuel type,” said Unified Fire Authority’s Matthew McFarland. “They have a lot more big timber.”

He said “it’s been a hot, dry summer,” and the dry lightning storms that sparked these coastal and forest fires in California didn’t help.

Firefighters from Draper, Lone Peak, Orem, Park City, Pleasant Grove, Provo, Unified Fire Authority, and West Valley City will deploy for about 16 days under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, an agreed arrangement between states to send and receive help when it is needed.

“It’s reciprocal,” McFarland said. “Everyone helps everyone, everywhere. It’s nice to know you can rely on that.”

The men and women from Utah agencies, who are trained for both structure and wildland fires, will get an unprecedented, albeit dangerous training opportunity while in the Golden State, as well. A financial component to it, too, helps offset equipment costs, Thompson said.

“It is a brotherhood and a sisterhood,” Cather said. “We’re there for each other. We protect each other. We watch each others’ backs and have a good time doing our job.”

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Wendy Leonard is a deputy news director at Prior to this, she was a reporter for the Deseret News since 2004, covering a variety of topics, including health and medicine, police and courts, government and other issues relating to family.
Alex Cabrero
Alex Cabrero has been reporting for KSL-TV for nearly two decades. He has covered a variety of stories over the years from a variety of places, but he particularly enjoys sharing stories that show what's good in the world.


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