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Montana firefighters on the way home from battling historic California fires

Posted at 5:34 PM, Aug 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-22 09:24:46-04

MISSOULA – After two weeks on the front lines of the biggest fires in California, a team of Montana firefighters is headed home. And they’re bringing back firsthand experience and warnings for us here about using extreme caution to prevent a similar catastrophe.

The teams from Missoula and other Montana cities have been on the front lines of the Mendocino Complex fires, hitting the fire lines during some of the worst of the firestorm. 

“We’ve got five engines from all over the State of Montana. It took us two days to get down here," said Task Force Team Leader John Veale. "We’ve been down here for 14-days and it’s going to take us two days to get back.

“We’ve been doing everything from mop up to setting hand lines to picking up spot fires. A typical day starts with a briefing at 7 o’clock and then we need to get out to the line. It’s a huge fire so our times have been long.”

"We’ve been working 24-hour shifts, so the shifts have been long and it’s been trying but the crew’s been doing a good job here.”

As Task Force Leader, Veale has been in charge of keeping the Missoula firefighters safe, which starts with a complete awareness of the conditions on this deadly fire. 

“You know my main concern are crew safety and we’ve done a good job of that so far. But we’ve got a long way to travel back home too.”

Dennis Bragg: How does this add to your experience for you and team down there to be working on these kinds of fires and see this kind of deployment?

Veale: You know it’s great for some of the more municipal kinds of departments to get out and get some wild land experience It’s definitely going to help them in their home units.”

But it’s not just been about the hard work and the heartbreak of seeing all the destruction. These fires have been extremely deadly, including the loss of another firefighter working the same complex this week. 

“There’s been a lot of stuff that’s been lost. The most heartbreaking thing is losing a fellow firefighter that we saw the other day. That’s definitely been on the crew’s mind the past couple of days.” 

Veale says after seeing these California fires first hand, it drives home the message of fire safety for Missoula and other communities, where a slightest mistake can turn summer into a firestorm.

The Montana teams should start arriving home this weekend.