Vashon responders help battle state’s record wildfires

As the state sees record wildfires, some Vashon firefighters have aided in the effort to control the blazes in Central and Eastern Washington.

Three firefighters from Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) recently returned from battling the massive wildfires, and a recent Vashon High School graduate is spending her entire summer working in the Methow Valley as a firefighter.

“At this point I’m sure we’ll be called again,” said Brett Kranjcevich, a VIFR firefighter who returned last week from a nine-day stint in Eastern Washington with Ross Copland.

The two men, who have special training in wildfire fighting, were deployed with a strike team of other specially trained responders from south King County. VIFR’s Wes Paulsen went over with another team a couple days before.

Kranjcevich and Copland were sent to both the Mills Canyon fire near Entiat, north of Wenatchee, and the Chiwaukum Creek Fire near Leavenworth. They worked on night shifts, mostly watching the fires to ensure they didn’t spread, and back burning, or setting controlled fires to burn specific areas to prevent the fire from growing.

“We do different things at night because it’s dark and dangerous,” Kranjcevich said.

In Leavenworth their main objective was to keep the Chiwaukum Creek fire from crossing Highway 2, where it would have put 4,000 structures in jeopardy should it have spread.

“It’s a completely different way of fighting fires, and all that helps you better your toolbox,” Copland said. “It’s a big deal for Vashon to be a part of the strike team.”

Copland, who has fought wildfires in the state before, said it was “a little nerve-wracking in the beginning,” when his team first headed into the Mills Canyon fire at night. And though the fires have an element of tragedy, having destroyed around 300 homes so far and caused one death, he also called the work exciting.

“Being the fact that we’re city firemen and firefighting is our job, it’s kind of the same thing, but we’ve never done this before,” he said.

Firefighters throughout the state have elected to get extra certification to fight wildfires, and when needed they respond from different areas and bringing equipment in groups called strike teams. However, the current wildfires, requiring thousands of crew members, have quickly exhausted the state’s resources, Copland said. The Vashon responders found themselves working alongside responders from around the country, including California, Mississippi, New Mexico and Arkansas.

“This is huge. (They) were out of resources pretty much on day one,” he said.

While VIFR firefighters aren’t required to complete the extra training required to respond to wildfires, several people at the Vashon station have. Copland and Kranjcevich said they want Vashon to do its part to help when needed. And though it’s unlikely there will be a wildfire on island, they know the help would be reciprocated.

“If the state needs help, you answer the call,” Copland said.

He added that he and other firefighters, who are paid by the state for their time off-island, also appreciate the experience.

“It makes you a better all-around firefighter,” he said.

Islander TeraJane Ripley is just getting into firefighting, and already she is helping battle blazes in Eastern Washington.

The 18-year-old got interested in firefighter as an Explorer during high school. Interested in pursuing it as a career after graduation, she learned of an opportunity to spend the summer as a wildland firefighter through her mother, Karen Ripley, who works for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

TeraJane ended up skipping her high school graduation in June to begin training for her new position, something she said was an easy decision, and she was assigned to work on an engine stationed in the Methow Valley. She has spent the last couple weeks helping battle the 400-square-mile Carleton Complex fire.

TeraJane said she wasn’t able to say specifically what she’s been doing in the Methow Valley, but she’s been on the front lines of the fire and called the work “difficult but rewarding,” in part because she and other responders have had to deal with the loss of power and water in the area they’ve worked.

As of Monday, the Carleton Complex fire, the largest in Washington, was about 60 percent contained. TeraJane will spend the rest of the summer stationed in the Methow Valley.

Karen Ripley is also working at a wildfire. A Forest Health Manager for DNR, she responded to a call for volunteers in Oregon and is acting as a public information officer at the Bingham Ridge Complex fire in Linn County.

Karen said she and TeraJane hadn’t been communicating much, in part because of the lost power, but that she imagines it’s been “a very intense time and challenging work.”

“These are fires of a lifetime,” she said “You don’t experience fires like this very many times in your career.”






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