September 03. 2018 12:58AM

NH firefighters part of massive effort to contain California blaze

New Hampshire Union Leader

A firefighter ignites vegetation with a drip torch to create a controlled burn while battling California's Mendocino Complex Fire in August. Granite State firefighters David Kullgren and Tom Trask were there for two weeks, working the edges of the fire by the controlled burn sites to ensure no embers jumped the line. (mike McMillan/USFS)

UKIAH, Calif. -- When David Kullgren and Tom Trask drove into this small city in the foothills, a somber mood hung over the command camp's hectic bustle.

The two men had left New Hampshire three-and-a-half days earlier in their red Forest Protection Bureau tank truck. Along the long Wyoming highways, they saw the first scorched scars of wildfires - some old, some new. By the time they got to Nevada, the skies grew hazy and certain winds brought the smell of burned trees. As they drove on toward Ukiah and the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest blaze in California history, the smell strengthened into an acrid taste.

"If you've never seen a big fire like that, everything is just reduced to ash. There are poles - these trees with no branches, no leaves. It was a little unnerving the first day," said Kullgren, a 46-year-old forest fire patrolman from Francestown who has deployed out of state 18 times to fight wildfires.

The same day he and Trask checked into the Ukiah command post, a fire-weakened tree had fallen on veteran Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett, of Utah, killing him. Burchett was the sixth person to lose his life fighting the wildfires in California this year. Several civilians also have died as a result of the fire.

Kullgren and Trask were assigned to the night shift, and they gathered with the other off-duty crews in the camp for a procession the day Burchett was taken home.

"We were shellshocked by it. It's not something you want to hear about on fires, but unfortunately it does happen," said Trask, 29, of Conway, who had been a municipal firefighter before becoming a forest ranger just over a year ago. "As soon as that's done, we have to remember and kind of move on with the scenario because there's still a job we have to do."

The various wildfires that joined to form the Mendocino Complex Fire began shortly after noon on July 27. Since then, the combined blaze has destroyed 157 homes, threatened 1,025 more buildings and burned nearly 460,000 acres - an area larger than Cheshire County and more than half the size of the White Mountain National Forest.

Kullgren and Trask worked the edges of the fire, patrolling controlled burn sites - ignited to create a fuel-free zone the main fire can't cross - to ensure no embers jumped the line or flames traveled in the wrong direction.

Living in New England, during a rain-drenched August, it can be hard to understand the conditions that lead to the massive Western wildfires, Kullgren said.

Around Ukiah, summer brings drought and dryness. The temperatures were in the 90s for most of the time the two men were there, once topping 100 degrees. 

Low humidity and shifting winds allow the fires to burn and change directions quickly.

"As the fire would hit, it would just torch up the trees ... it just moves simultaneously through everything it can touch," Trask said, remembering one shift near the end of their deployment when he and Kullgren were assigned to monitor a northern section of the line during the day. "The magnitude of what that fire is moving and doing - we were a couple miles away from serious activity and it sounded like a jet engine."

The sheer size of the Western geography adds to the complexity, Kullgren said. For the most part, wildfires in New Hampshire are easy to get to. In the Mendocino National Forest, access is limited and help can be far away.

For most of the two weeks Kullgren and Trask were in California, they patrolled at night along tricky dirt roads. The darkness brought another layer of risk.

Fire-weakened trees could smolder invisibly until a light breeze knocked them down.

"We call them the silent killers," Kullgren said. It's a slight misnomer because at night the crews could hear them crashing down in the darkness, but the sound comes too late to be much of a warning.

For all the danger around them, the patrolling could at times be tedious. And the work was exhausting.

Kullgren and Trask worked 16-hour shifts, but it often took them two hours to get to and from the area they were assigned on any given day.

When they arrived back in Ukiah in the morning, they had to look after the truck and fill out paperwork. 

They were getting between four and five hours of sleep a night in shared bunks in trailers outfitted with dozens of beds.

But the crews could see the fruits of their efforts and hear the gratitude of the residents, who often needed a gas mask to leave their homes and feared an evacuation order would force them to pack up and leave indefinitely. When Kullgren and Trask arrived, the fire was 68 percent contained. When they left on Tuesday, it was 90 percent contained.

"It was amazing, the locals that came up to us," Kullgren said. "They were very appreciative ... most Californians couldn't believe that we were there all the way from New Hampshire."

As usual, firefighters from around the world volunteered their help this wildfire season.

The Granite State pair worked alongside engines from Arizona and Illinois and private contractors from Montana and Tennessee. In total, nearly 2,000 personnel are still assigned to the Mendocino Complex Fire, and thousands more are at work across the West.

When Kullgren and Trask flew back to New Hampshire on Tuesday, they returned to families they described as staunchly supportive but eager for the reunion.

The day before they left Ukiah, another two-person team from the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands arrived to take their place. New Hampshire firefighters were also deployed to the Garden Creek Fire in Montana.

"You have to have that certain confidence to know you're going to come home yourself (in order) to do the job," Trask said. But "the way that I look at it is if you're going to do the job, you have to just want to be able to help."