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Helena firefighters on the road to assist in California wildfires

Posted at 5:38 PM, Oct 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-29 19:41:37-04

HELENA — Six Helena firefighters are now on the road, headed to California to assist with the wildfire response there.

On Tuesday morning, the Helena Fire Department got to work packing up two wildland fire trucks for a two-week deployment.

“We have a lot of hand tools, some smaller hoses, a couple of backpack pumps with water, a chainsaw – some of the tools we might need,” said Lt. Owen Koeppen.

This is Koeppen’s first time deploying outside Montana with HFD.

“This is a great opportunity for us to get some experience on a bigger incident,” he said. “A lot of times we stay in the city to cover the city, and we don’t get to get out on these.”

Gov. Steve Bullock’s office approved sending Montana firefighters to California as part of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or EMAC, a nationwide mutual aid system. Montana Disaster and Emergency Services helped organize the support. In addition to Helena, fire departments from places like Whitefish, Bigfork and Columbus also sent units.

HFD Assistant Chief Mike Chambers said they had been watching the conditions in California last week and preparing for a possible deployment. He said this is the first time they have made this kind of commitment through EMAC, and that the department has made efforts to get more involved in wildland firefighting.

“We want to help our neighbors,” he said. “We want to be part of the wildland world and assist our neighbors and get more experience for our guys and just be bigger players in the industry, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

It will take two days for the crews to reach Camarillo, California, where they are set to receive their assignments. Koeppen said it’s still not clear what type of work they will be doing. Their Type 6 trucks are fairly light and maneuverable, so they will be relatively flexible in what they can do.

Chambers said there will be no effect on HFD’s response in Helena while these crews are gone. He said they will still have 30 available firefighters to cover the shifts in town.

“We’ve asked the rest of the organization to step up and backfill and pull some overtime and do what’s needed to be done to make sure that we can do this deployment,” he said. “So it’s truly a whole-organization commitment, and I just couldn’t be prouder of our guys stepping up to take this on.”

Koeppen said they’re glad to be able to provide this help in California, now that Montana’s peak wildfire season is over.

“Up in Montana, we get a lot of resources from out-of-state when we need them in the summer, so it’s kind of a way that we can get down there and kind of help pay them back," he said.

The Helena firefighters are scheduled to be gone for 18 days – a 14-day deployment, plus two days of travel on either side.