Utah firefighters return home to rousing welcome after battling California wildfires

ST. GEORGE — Utah firefighters who had spent two weeks fighting devastating wildfires in Southern California returned home Wednesday evening and were welcomed by a cavalcade of fire and ladder trucks that were lined up and lighted up across the Exit 2 overpass off Interstate 15.

Multiple fire engines from Hurricane, St. George and Washington City fire departments line the overpass at Exit 2 on Interstate 15, welcoming the Utah fire crews home from fighting California fires, St. George, Utah, Dec. 20, 2017 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

“I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine,” writer Kurt Vonnegut once said.

That was certainly true when California put out a call for help and more than 100 Utah firefighters with 20 agencies deployed Dec. 7 to assist in the firefighting effort.

Most of the those deployed were released and many made their way home Wednesday, and all are expected to arrive home before Christmas, Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Utahans from each of these jurisdictions should be proud of their service,” Dougherty said.

That return was celebrated at the Utah Port of Entry and at Exit 2 Wednesday evening, as more than 25 firefighters from multiple fire departments, including St. George, Hurricane and Washington City, welcomed them home in firetrucks that lined the overpass from end to end.

Utah firefighters, Southern California, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Uintah City Fire Department, St. George News

Kanab Fire Chief Joe Deckert filmed the procession from one of returning Hurricane trucks and the footage is included in the video at the top of this report.

The fire crews were greeted with flashing lights and the St. George Fire Department’s 100-foot illuminated ladder that was raised in honor of their service while the caravan made its way into St. George escorted by two Washington County Sheriff’s deputies with still more flashing lights.

Utah crews battled the fires amid numerous structures in hot weather while navigating steep, rocky terrain, Shayne Ward, of the Utah Division of Forestry, said.

“We worked hard, helped out all of the citizens of California and now we’re home – and there’s nothing like home,” he said.

Hurricane Valley Fire crews that included an engine boss out of the Hildale/Colorado City Fire Department and a firefighter from Kanab were released from fighting the California fires Wednesday, returning in two engines that deployed nearly two weeks ago – Engine 43, a type III interface engine capable of pumping water while moving, along with Engine 41 and crew, which had been featured in a local news story in California.

Firefighters hosing down patio of Santa Barbara County, Calif. residence as featured by KEYT Channel 3 News, Montecito, Calif., Dec. 15, 2017 | Photo courtesy of KEYT Channel 3, St. George News

The crew of Engine 41 received recognition for “their outstanding efforts by residents and fire officials, for going the extra mile in caring for another’s property,”  Deputy Chief Kevin Gildea, of Hurricane Valley Fire District, said in the Wednesday statement.

Their story was captured by KEYT Channel 3 News after a resident, Maire Radis, viewed surveillance footage from her home when she returned after being evacuated last week due to the threat that the fire would eventually engulf multiple structures in Montecito, California.

“Not only did we see the house was still standing, we were able to see these incredible firemen watering the plants and hosing down the patio,” Radis told KEYT News reporter Alys Martinez Dec. 15.

“My heart just about burst with gratitude seeing that.”

When Radis returned home Friday she was “overjoyed to see her home still standing, virtually untouched by the Thomas Fire,” according to the article.

The fires were so violent and destructive, and it was overwhelming to see all of the firefighters that came from other states to help not only the people of Santa Barbara County, but for the entire state,” Oscar Flores, digital content director for KEYT Channel 3 News said Thursday. “And the Utah crews are certainly included in that.”

Several firefighters who returned Wednesday said they were treated very well during their deployment in California, and that they were well taken care of.

Ward went on to say that “California was great, the people there were very, very gracious and hospitable, and just very welcoming in general.”

California firefighters battled the Thomas Fire that started Dec. 4 and burned across two counties prompting mass evacuations as thousands of acres burned while strong winds fueled the fast-moving fires.

Three days later, Utah crews deployed and divided into five strike teams comprised of crews as well as firefighting equipment and 32 vehicles, including engines, water-bearing trucks and support vehicles as part of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a system of state-to-state mutual aid.

The Washington City Fire Department went in the department’s new Type 1 engine staffed with four firefighters who were immediately sent to the Lilac Fire in San Diego County where 4,100 acres burned and 65 structures destroyed. On Dec. 11, they were released to fight the Thomas Fire in the foothills of Santa Barbara.

Fire officials said Wednesday the fire that has burned through more than 272,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1,100 structures was 60 percent contained. It is the second largest fire in the state’s history.

“They were a tremendous asset and their service was acknowledged as such by the state of California,” Utah’s Division of Emergency Management’s Kris Hamlet said.

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Email: cblowers@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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