Kyle Fire Dept. aids Cali fires

Strewn about the vehicle bay of Kyle Fire Station No. 1 Monday were several large black crates packed with clothes, bunker gear and various other items.

Mike Vasil, Kyle Fire Department (KFD) assistant chief, along with longtime firefighter Brandon Kitchens, spent time taking stock of what they packed, checking to make sure they have everything they need before tossing it into their truck.

Vasil and Kitchens, along with two other Kyle firefighters, are part of a legion of 200 Central Texas first responders that will be heading to help California officials combat a pair of deadly, raging wildfires. For Vasil, providing respite for officials who might also be affected by the disaster is ample motivation, even if it means missing out on the holidays.

“It’s good to know we can help other firefighters in California. It’s been a long fire season for them,” Vasil said. “The thing is, we can help them, so they can go home to family and deal with any losses they might have themselves.”

KFD, along with a firefighter from San Marcos and many more from the Austin area, are part of the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System (TIFMAS), which was dispatched by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this week.

Kyle Taylor, Kyle fire chief, said the mobilization of TIFMAS to California is only the second time firefighters have been dispatched to help out of state. In recent years, TIFMAS has been mobilized to assist in natural disasters affecting Texas, such as rescue and recovery efforts in Hurricane Harvey.

Taylor said firefighters from Kyle, San Marcos and New Braunfels will be part of two strike teams when they get to California. Firefighters will provide boots on the ground for anywhere from 14 to 21 days, Taylor said.

What their tasks will be once they arrive is still up in the air, Taylor said. Current estimates call for the group to provide structure protection. In addition, the group could be asked to provide manpower for Los Angeles County’s 60 fire stations, which have been taxed in recent days as they battle the blaze.

The fire, dubbed the Woolsey Fire, has consumed more than 92,000 acres and is approximately 15 percent contained, according to a National Public Radio report. In total, 44 people have died as a result of several wildfires in California, with many more displaced and evacuated.

“It’s good that we have the ability to help our neighbors, whether it’s in state or out-of-state,” Taylor said.

Traveling to help fight wildfires is not a new experience for Vasil. During the summer, Vasil was part of a small group of Texans who joined to battle the Carr fire in northern California, which burned more than 200,000 acres.

Vasil said the magnitude of fires in California is different than what they usually deal with. That includes having to work against the Santa Anna winds, which can blow up to 50 to 60 miles per hour. Fire crews also have to take into account a different landscape, which can include driving up and down winding logging roads along the side of mountains. 

Those who are a part of TIFMAS traveling to help in combating wildfires have to meet certain qualifications to be eligible to go.

Taylor said responding firefighters must be able to be self sufficient for up to 21 days. That includes packing fire gear and enough clothes, along with tents, cots and other items. Firefighters also try to keep up with weather patterns, so as to make sure they have the correct gear.

“We can’t send someone out there that doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing,” Vasil said.

Back home, Taylor and other area fire chiefs aim to fill the void left by firefighters who will be gone for close to three weeks. Providing overtime for full- and part-time firefighters is one way KFD plans to bridge the gap. The department also plans to have firefighters from North Hays County and Austin assist as well.

“The main thing is we still have to respond to calls in Kyle,” Taylor said. “I’ve got to get these guys’ shifts covered for the next 21 days.”

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