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IB Firefighters Return From Fighting Blaze In Northern California

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Posted: Friday, November 22, 2019 12:09 pm

On Oct. 26 on a Saturday afternoon around 1:30 p.m. while coming back from a call, the team of three firefighters heard from their boss, Fire Chief John French. French told them a strike team of five Type 1 engines was being formed to help fight the Kinkade fire.

“We came back to the station, packed and left. We were on the way at 3 p.m.,” said Fire Captain/ Paramedic Ehren Kahle.

His teammates were Engineer/Paramedic Cory Cooper and Firefighter/Paramedic Nick Morales. Joined by fire engines from Coronado, Chula Vista, and two from San Diego the IB firefighters drove together as a caravan due north. The strike team was headed by a battalion chief from San Diego.

The group pulled into Fresno at 11 p.m. and and the next morning drove another 300 to 400 miles and reached Santa Rosa by 11 a.m. Cooper drove the whole way up, 1,325 miles, to the Kinkade fire.

“We checked into base camp and within 45 minutes we were dispatched…We were sent out to a pretty active fire line,” said Kahle.

The IB team was sent to fight the fire soon after arrival and found itself in areas with structure fires and different terrain and didn’t get off until the next morning. “It was almost a 24 hour deal the first night,” said Kahle. “The winds were horrific and we spent the night in the fire line…everything was burning.”

The wind played a big factor in the Kinkade fire. “The winds were different and changed sporadically,” said Morales.

“Unpredictable,” added Cooper.

Base camp was set up in the fairgrounds, where big tents took the place of buildings where the firefighters had their meals. “The fairgrounds had engines as far as the you can see,” said Morales.

The trio took turns sleeping while the temperature dropped to freezing and sometimes that meant sleeping on a bench covered by jackets and protective clothing for warmth. The fairgrounds had facilities like bathrooms, showers and laundry. Some firefighters pitched tents where they slept. Morales recalls sleeping and hearing the sound of a big oak tree falling. However, their team did not get a lot of sleep during those trying times.

Camaraderie became a big part of their experience on this mission. “There were [firefighters] we had never met before and at the end of the trip we were on a first name basis,” said Morales.

“We ran into people from the San Diego areas like Poway and San Miguel,” added Cooper.

A total of 77,000 acres was burned during that fire and strike teams from all over the U.S. were there helping out including ones from Texas, Nevada, and Oregon.

While driving towards base camp on a two lane highway headed for the fire, the team recalled how it was virtually a deserted road while in the opposite direction there were wall to wall cars. “We saw neighborhoods that were ghost towns,” said Morales.

Some memories are more vivid for the IB team. At one point they were sent to protect a chapel at a winery.

The fire was fully contained on Nov. 7 and caused $77.1 million in damages. It’s considered the largest fire of the 2019 fire season and the largest in Sonoma County. It started on Oct. 23 during a high wind event and by Oct. 27, evacuations and warnings were issued for the county.

On the way back to San Diego the team stopped to help with a fire in Ventura. Morales explained that the team was in the system for 14 days and could be utilized as a resource if more fires broke out - which is what happened.

The five cities strike team stayed for five days at the Kinkade fire, went to the Ventura fire, and came back to San Diego on Halloween night - too late for Cooper and Morales to go trick or treating with their young kids.

Cooper has a 2 year old and a 5 year old, who on the days before Halloween wanted to know when their dad was coming back so they could trick or treat together.

The same happened to Morales, whose youngest kids are 8 and 2, and they ended up FaceTiming him while they were trick or treating.

Firefighters’ children, like all first respondents, don’t always see their mom or dad for all the holidays but they get used to it. However, when firefighters are gone for a longer time it can be challenging. Kahle’s wife Stephanie wrote a book for her toddlers some years ago to try to explain where their dad was and what he was doing. In that case Kahle had been gone for 21 days fighting a fire. Stephanie Kahle’s book is entitled “My Daddy Slays Dragons” and it is now in the process of being published in February 2020.

Kahle who has been with the Imperial Beach Fire department for 18 years has been part of other strike teams, as has Cooper who has been with the department for 12 years. Kahle and Cooper had both gone north in 2008 with the now Fire Chief John French. That year there had been thousands of fires burning across the state.

Morales, who has been in IB for two years, has also been part of strike teams with other departments.

Although the fire season is typically during this time of year through December, it’s pretty much always considered fire season in Southern California, explained Kahle.

As part of their training and duties, the firefighters are always ready to go to big fires if needed and this case was no different. “We had an idea we could possibly go,” said Morales.

“When we show up in the morning we know we could be going,” said Kahle.

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