Greenwood Events
Thursday, August 24th, 2000
 

Smoky, hot, exhausting, but he'd do it again
By Lynn R. Parks

Two days after John Tomeski started fighting the Crooked Creek fire near Lolo Pass, Idaho, he and his 20-member unit were ordered to evacuate. "Our job was to prevent hot spots from spreading," Tomeski, Bridgeville, said. Hot spots are circles of fire, about 10 feet across, that threaten to grow. Fighting them is largely a matter of digging holes and removing combustible material. "If we are able to get water we use it. But a lot of the work is done by hand: getting cool, dry earth to mix in with the hot dirt until it is all cool." But this time, nature was working against them.

"We noticed more and more hot spots were springing up, so we called the lookout," Tomeski said. "He told us that the wind had shifted and there were wind gusts that were causing more fire action. Sparks were flying up to 1/2 mile and were dumping right where we were working. There was no way we could fight them with hand tools."

The order came to move out.

"The head fire was below us, so we were told we got to go up about 1/2 mile, up to the next ridge and the safety zone. It was not a panic - they gave us plenty of time to get out - but we moved at a steady pace. When we got to the ridge, my legs were dead. And when we looked back, we could see the fire coming, right where we had been."
Tomeski and his group were ordered to another sector of the same fire, which in that one burst had spread from 1,000 acres to 5,000 acres. They spent most of the next 12 days fighting in that area.

Tomeski, 35, is a seven-year member of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department. About four years ago, he volunteered for state training in Redden State Forest, Georgetown, and at the Delaware Fire School and received federal certification that allows him to fight fires in national forests. The certification must be renewed every year.

Tomeski was notified Thursday, July 27, by the state that Delaware had put together a crew to fight fires in the west. At that time, 61,000 fires in the drought- stricken Rocky Mountains had destroyed over 3.5 million acres. The next Wednesday the Delaware group, along with crews from New Hampshire and Maine, was flown to Missoula, Mont., a 90-minute bus ride from Crooked Creek. "You could see the smoke from there," he said. "It was just like a fog." From Missoula the firefighters were bused to Crooked Creek. They arrived there at noon Thursday and were dispatched to the fire immediately.

"They wanted to keep the fire from growing," he said. While no homes were in danger of being destroyed, the park in which the fire was is home to portions of the Lewis and Clark Trail and several historic building. "They wanted to protect them," Tomeski said.

The firefighters' days lasted for from 13 to 15 hours. "We were up at 4:30 a.m., had breakfast and left camp at about 6 a.m. And we might not get back until 8:30," he said. "Then we had just enough time to wash up and eat dinner before it was time to go to bed." "Bed" was a sleeping bag in a tent.
Following a second evacuation order, Tomeski and his crew again had to climb a steep mountain to the next ridge. This time, "you could hear the rumble of the fire coming up the ridge," Tomeski said. "You could see the fire coming." The men made it to the top of the ridge - having grown used to the steep terrain, their legs were not sore this time - and started walking along a road toward their camp. By that time the fire, which Tomeski said moves very quickly through a forest, had reached the level of the road. But because the road is just dirt, with no combustible materials, flames jumped right over it to the trees on the other side. "We could watch it jump over right behind us," he said.

But he always felt safe. Each firefighter carries a fire shelter - a fire-resistant tent-like structure under which the firefighter can find safety - and all crews are in constant radio contact with a control tower. "Safety is the No. 1 thing out there," he said. Even so, he was glad to be home. "After about 10 days I got homesick," he said. "We were all tired physically and mentally and it was good to be home."

Despite the fact that he is still coughing due to all the smoke he inhaled, he is happy that he volunteered to fight the fire. And he said that he would do so again. "We stopped the fire from getting any bigger, and that was our job," he said. When he arrived, the Crooked Creek fire was only 10 percent contained. When he left, it was 90 percent contained. Even so, 28 fires are still raging in Idaho. Tomeski said that many believe they will not go out until the first snowfall. "Every day was an adventure," Tomeski said. "Each day, something new happened." And the reaction from people who live in the area only reinforced his belief that his work was valued. "All the locals out there treated us like heroes," he said.