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Utah crews on front lines of Hurricane Ida, Western wildfires

Posted at 8:32 PM, Aug 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-31 02:10:06-04

Before Hurricane Ida made landfall on the Gulf Coast, members of Utah Task Force 1 were already on the ground in Louisiana awaiting the wrath of the massive storm.

“For Hurricane Ida, they all bedded down last night after an ops meeting and a planning meeting," said UT-TF1 Program Manager Bryan Case. "It was 1 a.m. local time there when some of these teams woke and started heading out to their areas to do their assignment."

WATCH: Utah rescue crew in Louisiana after Ida leaves nearly a million without power

The task force is one of 28 urban search & rescue (USAR) teams in the country. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) oversees the 28 teams and works to coordinate with them in the event of a disaster. UT-TF1 will respond to both federal and state emergencies when called upon.

Ida made landfall on Sunday as a Category 4 storm, producing winds of more than 170 miles per hour.

“The vast majority of our folks are prepped and primed for this; they know what busy season means for hurricanes, so in some respects, it's almost predictable or a planned event,” said Case, who serves as a division chief with Unified Fire Authority.

With only a handful of UT-TF1 members on the ground, most of them have been to the gulf before for hurricane response. Case says his team members are working on the management and overhead group, directing and coordinating the rescue and recovery efforts on the ground.

UT-TF1 pulls from seven local fire agencies and a number of other local departments and businesses. While many of the responders are experienced firefighters, some members of the team are civilians with necessary skills to the operation.

“The people that have chosen this line of work, we know what we’re getting into, we’re happy to do it and it is a bit of a privilege too because there’s a few incidents that we’ve been apart of where the locals who are obviously very much affected by what's happened to them are over the moon that we’re there to help,” said Case.

With wildfires continuing to spark and grow in western states, numerous task forces from Utah have already come and gone.

“Normally these requests don’t start rolling in until about this time, so we actually started a lot earlier this year," said Joe Dougherty, the director of public affairs for the Utah Department of Public Safety. "As we know, fire season in other states can run all year long. We’ve sent firefighters to California as late as November."

Dougherty says nearly 160 firefighters from local departments have been deployed over the span of seven missions so far this year.

“It’s definitely a commitment on their part because these firefighters are going to be away from family and friends and all the things that you miss over the two week time period," Dougherty said. "But on the other hand, they’re going to get really good experience working with fire teams from other states, working with the requesting state, and then they bring all that knowledge back to Utah.”

Countless other local, state and federal wildland firefighting crews and resources have been assigned to wildfires across the country this fire season.

As of Monday, the Bureau of Land Management’s Bonneville Interagency Hotshot Crew has been on assignment 96 days this season. Lone Peak Interagency Hotshot Crew has also been on assignment for 96 days this fire season.

When it comes to the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), or state-to-state mutual aid agreement, the needs of other states for firefighting resources will determine if more Utah fire crews are headed out-of-state to assist.

“It says a lot that these states continue to want to work with us. I think that if we were doing a bad job, they would say, ‘No thanks, Utah,’ but they’re happy to have the help that comes from our state,” said Dougherty, who notes that requesting states cover the salaries and costs of Utah firefighters who are on assignment.