It took Rich Scalora and his crew four days to drive from Connecticut to the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in northwest California. Normally they’d hop on a plane and be there in a day. But this year COVID-19 forced the 10-person crew onto the road, for a drive out West that contained hints of what they’d face in California.
“There [were] two or three fires that we passed in Wyoming alone,” Scalora said. “I mean we know what we’re getting into, but until you get there, you can’t really put that picture, that little slide, in your head.”
Scalora said he’s been fighting fires out West since 2008 as part of a reciprocal aid program operated and funded by the U.S. Forest Service. Earlier this summer, a separate 10-person crew from Connecticut deployed for three weeks to fight wildfires in the Modoc National Forest area in northeastern California.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, dozens of wildfires are burning in California this year, with the latest available data indicating more than 2.4 million acres remain on fire.
In addition to California, large fires continue to burn in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Idaho.
After more than a decade of wildfire response, Scalora said he believes climate change has made fires bigger and more intense.
“Things are just drier and more ready to burn. There’s more available fuel. People are building more and more into the wildland and building that ‘wildland-urban’ interface, which creates problems, and it just adds more fuel for the fires,” Scalora said.
After about a week at the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, Scalora’s crew redeployed to the Red Salmon Complex fire, which has burned over 120,000 acres in northern California and continues to grow in certain areas.
Latest updates from that fire indicate crews are working to protect several communities at risk from the fire, which is about 30% contained. Evacuation warnings have put communities on alert, and smoke-filled skies contribute to unhealthy air.
Scalora recalled that his crew worked 12-hour shifts starting in the early afternoon and extending past midnight. He said it was like “Groundhog Day,” as they worked to contain the same section of fire day after day underneath a sky perpetually obscured by a smoke-filled glow.
“We actually never really saw the sun,” Scalora said. “The sun was just smoke-obscured all day long. It was a weird, palish orange-yellow color most of the day, but you never really saw the sun. And then as the day progresses into dusk and evening, it goes from that weird orange-yellow color just right to pitch-black at night.”
Earlier this month, smoke from wildfires out West blew across the country, resulting in haze-filled days in Connecticut.
Scalora said as fires get bigger and more intense, the resources to fight these disasters haven’t kept up.
“We don’t have the resources available nationwide to fight the fires the way they burn today,” Scalora said. “We normally send a 20-person crew out. And we ended up sending a 10-person [crew] just because of the pandemic.”
“California is screaming for help every day,” Scalora said. “There [are] numerous requests that go unfilled every day for firefighters, for fire engines … just for equipment in general. This year, unfortunately, it all goes back to COVID-19.”
After about two weeks of work, the crew began the four-day drive home.
Scalora said it was a time to discuss the fire, swap stories and, most of all, look forward to coming back home to Connecticut.
“I have some really specific plans,” Scalora said. “I’m actually getting married on Oct. 17.”