DNR fire crews spent summer battling Western wildfires


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The summer of 2020 was hot and dry, creating another perfect storm for a devastating wildfire season along the West Coast.

When your local fire department needs extra help, it reaches out to neighboring departments. It’s called mutual aid.

In the case of the recent western wildfires, that mutual aid came from a lot farther than next door.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources firefighter Ben Osterland out of the Allegan County DNR station was among the Michigan crews who filled 90 out-of-state assignments this wildfire season.

The first stop for Osterland and his partner Paul Dunn was the Lake Fire in the Angeles National Forest north east of Los Angeles. For Osterland, it was one of two trips out West.

“In early October, for almost the whole month of October, I went to the August Complex,” Osterland said.

The August Complex fire involved over a million acres in Northern California, making it the largest fire in the state’s history.

The days were long. Osterland and his fellow firefighters hiked up and down the mountain terrain carrying up to 40 pounds of gear in 90-degree heat.

“We’re hiking 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, you know, 11 miles a day,” Osterland said.

Unlike the firefighters in your neighborhood, the equipment and tactics are different for fighting wildfires.

Some things are similar: They still use water. Osterland and crew to a version of DNR fire engine, a heavy duty pick-up with a pump mounted on the flat bed, to the August Complex.

But much of the work involves using heavy equipment and hand tools to clear trees, brush and other debris that fuel the fires, creating fire breaks.

“You’re cutting … 2- or 3-foot lines in the dirt, down the bare mineral soil, where the fire will back up and hit that and go out,” Osterland explained.

The work can be dangerous. Winds can be unpredictable and a quick shift can send the flames right at or around firefighters, like in 2013 when 19 members of Arizona’s elite wildfire team known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed as fire overran their position.

“It’s part of the job, so it’s always on your mind. You got to be safe. You’ve got to look out,” Osterland said.

There are entire teams behind the scenes watching the weather, the fire behaviors and other factors. On the front lines, they look out for each other.

“Everyone wants to go home at the end of the day or the end of the assignment,” Osterland said.

While Michigan has had its share of wildfires over the years, it’s not to the extent of what they see year after year in the West. The knowledge the DNR firefighters and their support crews gain in helping out is valuable when it comes to battling the fires at home.

“Going out of state gives us an extra opportunity to get that experience and build up those skills for those positions that are needed in-state as well,” Osterland said.

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