As wildfires burned throughout the Northwest this summer, two islanders were among the thousands of firefighters on the front lines combatting them.
Vashon Island Fire & Rescue’s Brett Kranjcevich and Tony Puz returned last week from 12 days working at the Jolly Mountain Fire near Cle Elum. There they spent the majority of their time working on “contingency lines” — miles-long swaths of land cleared to protect nearby communities, including Roslyn and Ronald. Previously, the two men had worked together for seven days at the Grand Mound fire. They returned home for just a few days and were sent out again to work with the Jolly Mountain crews to do work that is notoriously grueling.
Kranjcevich and Puz headed to that fire on Saturday, Sept. 2. On his way home from work the night before they left, Kranjcevich said he could see a column of smoke rising in the sky from the fire, clearly visible from Vashon. The next day, he and Puz arrived at the command center to find that 900 homes were under a level three evacuation — immediate departure ordered — and 1,200 more were at level two evacuation, meaning be set to go.
“That is a lot of structures to try to protect,” he said.
Initially, the men familiarized themselves with the area, learning about water supplies, safety zones and escape routes and then were given their assignments, which included 14- to 16-hour days clearing the land and chipping the resulting wood in high temperatures and dusty, smoke-filled air. One day, Puz drank two gallons of water, and on another day, Kranjcevich said he drank three and a half.
“It was a lot of hard work, but we felt like we made a difference,” he added.
Puz, who has worked on five wildfires so far this season, came down with a cold at the Jolly Mountain Fire, but it did not keep him from the task at hand.
“There are no sick days out there,” he said last week with a shrug.
Both men noted that the communities were extremely appreciative of their work. One restaurant in Ronald fed 40 of the firefighters for free and sent each home with a box of brownies, Kranjcevich said. When the fire vehicles would pass through, members of Roslyn and Ronald would line the streets, waving and cheering as though it was a parade.
Puz has served as a VIFR volunteer firefighter for four years and has joined wildland firefighting teams during the last three. Kranjcevich, who says he has “a lifetime” of firefighting experience, has been with Vashon’s department for 38 years and has fought wildland fires for 17. He said it is worthwhile work to save houses and towns, but there is another pull for him as well.
“I love to do it because there is nothing more fulfilling than pulling into a fire and relieving those crews that have been working for more than 40 hours and have had no sleep,” he said, adding, “It’s hard. I know what it is like to feel that exhausted.”
Puz, too, said he appreciates the work and some of its rewards, especially meeting other firefighters and waving at kids in the mini-parades that form.
The fires of the West have made for one of the worst fire seasons ever. Puz and Kranjcevich say it was evident in their work. Crews were resource poor, with not enough people and not enough equipment.
As of Monday, the Jolly Mountain Fire was at 36,800 acres and was 40 percent contained. Precipitation was in the forecast.