Firefighters at California wildfire January 2019

​“But no tragedy is wasted – we always learn and take something away as we will with this.”

Last November, the deadliest and most destructive wildfires on record hit California. Feature writer, Amy Rowland, speaks to Brian Ursettie, president of the Arcadia Firefighters’ Association (AFFA) IAFF Local 3440, about his experience tackling the fires

In the 11 years that Brian Ursettie has been a firefighter, the wildfires that hit California last November, were the worst he’d seen in his career. The fires raged for over a week, killing 87 and forcing over 250,000 to flee their homes. 

Brian says: “Living in California, I’ve seen and dealt with many wildfires before, but I’ve never seen one on that scale. It touched so many parts of the city at once, destroying everything in its wake.

“The blaze started on 8 November near Thousand Oaks, an area 40 miles north-west of central Los Angeles. Another blaze, the Hill Fire, started at about the same time, also near Thousand Oaks. Strong winds of up to 70mph aggravated the conditions, intensifying the heat with the flames spreading fast.”

Brian was on the second day of a 48-hour shift when his station got the call to help. He says: “We train every year for wild fires and try and prepare for every eventuality, learning from each one. But quite early on I could tell this was different and on a bigger scale. It was so windy and intense.”

Indeed, LA Fire Chief Daryl Osby said the blaze “signified a shift” adding that fire crews faced “the most erratic and challenging fight of their lives”.

For Brian, it was the start of the hardest eight days of his firefighting career. He says: “There were four of us on one engine. Luckily, we’re a solid crew who work well together. We drove into one neighbourhood and there were houses burning on the left of us, and to the right, as we drove down the middle. We had to adapt quickly to areas we didn’t know, remembering entrances and exits. You have to put your trust 100% into your crew.

“And knowing your limitations is important. We only have a 500-gallon tank, therefore only have the capacity to focus on saving lives and structures. As the fire moved, we were unable to work on containing the flames. We just had to pull back and move on to the next house to do what we could to stop the fire from spreading. It became an impossible task. We were awake for 56 hours before I was finally able to speak to my wife and three children to update them. Adrenalin was what kept us going. We couldn’t think about victims and what they had lost, you just can’t, it’s too overwhelming.

“Other firefighters had lost their homes, but carried on with their job. It was a privilege to work alongside them.”

The local union acted fast, setting up a base camp. Debit cards loaded with money were handed out to the firefighters and their families who had lost their homes to get essentials. There were sleep trailers and food stations and within the first aid tent, peer support counsellors.

Brian says: “I’d never seen counsellors on the ground before and it was great to see. It certainly showed how far the fire service has come in breaking down the macho image of you shouldn’t talk about your feelings. We saw devastation, houses burnt to the ground and people running to safety leaving everything they’d built behind. Of course, it’s going to affect you.

“I’ve never been afraid to say I was scared by things I had seen or jobs we had been on to my colleagues. But so many were. It’s good that the union are helping to break down the mental health stigma and opening lines of communication. It provided a huge level of comfort at a time when everyone was so stressed and exhausted.”

87 lives were lost in the Woolsey and the Camp fire. 18,000 structures were destroyed and more than 250,000 people were forced to flee their homes, with Mark Ghilarducci, of the California governor's office, saying: “The magnitude of the destruction of the fire is unbelievable and heartbreaking”.

Now three months on, the residents of California continue to try and piece their lives back together.

Brian says: “I can’t speak for everyone, about how they feel emotionally after a tragic incident like this, but it’s so hard to go from 100mph to stillness and normal life.

“But I hope as a result of the tragedy, the government will put more funding into our fire service.

“In our city there are three firefighters on every engine. During wild fires there are four but the union are saying we should have four all the time so I hope this happens.

“But no tragedy is wasted – we always learn and take something away as we will with this.”

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