Back From the Blaze: Area crews return after helping to battle Ventura County wildfire

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMay 7, 2013 

— More than a dozen firefighters, captains and engineers from Merced County made the long trek home Sunday after battling a 28,000-acre wildfire in Ventura County.

Fire officials said the Springs fire started Thursday at the edge of the southbound lanes of Highway 101 near the city of Camarillo.

At its peak, the wildfire threatened 4,000 homes and required the assistance of 2,000 firefighters, said Bill Nash, public information officer for the Ventura County Fire Department.

Among those firefighters were six from the Merced Fire Department -- Battalion Chief Shawn Henry, Capt. Cory Haas, Capt. Casey Wilson, engineer Scott Atkins, and firefighters Greg Ybarra and Keith Albrecht.

Three individuals from the Los Banos Fire Department also assisted -- Capt. Robert Staruck, engineer J.P. Soares and firefighter Mike Miner.

Merced County Cal Fire deployed four of its personnel -- firefighters Dana Kelsay and

Cody Ratley, and engineers Teddy Perales and Mark Domigue.

Ratley was one of 20 medics providing care for firefighters on the front lines.

Ratley carried 60-pound life-support packs uphill in 92-degree temperatures and treated three firefighters for heat-related problems during his four days in Southern California.

A trained emergency medical technician since 2006, this was Ratley's first experience as a fire-line EMT. "It's rewarding because you're part of a team," he said. "Everyone is equal and everyone has to do their job to get the fire out."

The local fire crews received the call to help about 1 a.m. Friday, according to Merced Fire Battalion Chief Shawn Henry, who was the strike team leader overseeing five engines.

"A lot of times, when the state dispatches for fires like that, it's when they need you, so you don't have a lot of time to plan," Henry said.

After a 5½-hour drive, the fire crews immediately went into action and started putting out hot spots in Camarillo.

They were released 22 hours later, once firefighters had gained the upper hand over the massive blaze.

"We want to get those people back to their families as soon as possible," Nash said. About 1,000 firefighters remained on scene Monday afternoon, he said.

The fire was about 80 percent contained Monday, with full containment expected today.

Henry said this year's wildfire season started earlier than usual -- a month-and-a-half ahead of normal. Higher temperatures, heavy winds and a dry winter have contributed to extremely dry conditions in the valley.

Be aware of fire risks

When fire danger is high, Merced County residents should pay special attention to dry materials near their homes and remove tall weeds. Using lawn-mowing equipment in the morning can prevent such equipment from sparking accidental fires, Henry added.

The city and county fire departments have begun their annual Hazard Weed Abatement programs, looking for homes with overgrown weeds and other potential hazards.

If a hazard is identified, property owners are sent a notice with a timeline for correcting the problem. Crews then return to the property for a second check.

"We try to educate the public on the dangers of having the dry grass around their homes and other hazards," said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Gabriel Santos.

Although Merced County might not have large grasslands similar to Ventura County, Merced Fire Capt. Casey Wilson said battling the Springs fire was a good learning experience.

"To take that experience and what we learned back to our organization is valuable," Wilson said. "We can spread that throughout the department and it makes us better firefighters for the community."

Los Banos Fire Chief Chet Guintini said the crews are deployed as part of the California Emergency Response System, which provides 131 "green" fire engines across the state to respond to emergencies.

These assignments provide local firefighters the opportunity help other cities and network with out-of-area agencies.

"It's always nice to know that our people can respond to these types of incidents and be safe with what they're doing," he said.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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