Michigan firefighters return home from fighting California wildfires

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NEWBERRY, Mich. (WLUC) - The Thomas Fire is the largest fire on record in California history, burning almost 282,000 acres of land, since it's start on December 4. On January 12, the fire became 100 percent contained, with the help of thousands of firefighters, even some from Michigan.

On December 20th, 13 Michigan Department of Natural Resources firefighters and seven Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighters flew out to California to fight the Thomas Fire as a handcrew.

"The handcrew is just what it sounds like. It's 20 guys that put boots on the ground, that climb the mountains, dig the trenches, that cut the trees, and that's kind of the back bone to wildlands firefighting," says P.J. Costa, a Forest Fire Supervisor for Newberry Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The crew was sent on a 14-day assignment, beginning two days in the Sequoia National Forest and ending in the San Bernadino National Forest.

"They had ordered us on the assumption that there were some more Santa Ana winds coming, some high wind events and they were going to need the help. Those winds didn't happen, so they were kind of able to control what they were doing there, and then after two days they sent us to San Bernadino, the National Forest there, and we ran initial attack for them for the rest of the trip," Costa explains.

"It was very good experience to see how the fire reacts. When we went out there we got to go out on one night fire, and even with it being at night with colder temperatures, the flames are still pretty active, so that was really good experience there," says Kyle Reidenga, a Forest Technician for Newberry Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

These kind of assignments are part of partnership agreements with other states - when a state needs help in an area, they'll reach out, and other states will bring in relief. In order to help out, crews must have enough members to stay at their home DNR stations in case any emergencies happen. The Department of Natural Resources is also reimbursed for the expenses used to send crews out of state.

"For the young guys, it's a great learning experience and it really builds the foundation of knowledge that they need to go on farther in their careers, so that's always a great experience no matter where you end up," says Costa.

"I know there are a lot of people with families who are out there, so I thought I could go and help them out. I'm a single guy so I don't have family and a wife sitting at home, so I figured I'd volunteer my time so somebody else with a family can go home and see them over the holidays," says Reidenga.

The firefighters returned to Michigan on Jan. 6.

"The most important thing is we have to thank our families for allowing us to go. It's a tough thing obviously for the dad to leave - I have a wife and two little girls - so I want to thank them for allowing this to happen," Costa says.