Big Sky Fire Department answers the call for California wildfire aid

“Our people were eager to participate. They become firefighters because they’re willing to help anyone.” William Farhat, Big Sky Fire Department Chief

When the Big Sky Fire Department (BSFD) received a formal request from the state of Montana on Wednesday, Dec. 6 to head to California to battle the fires raging there, they didn’t waste any time. By 5 p.m. that day four local firefighters loaded into an engine and hit the road, headed to charred parts of Southern California to aid in the fight against the spreading blaze.

Battalion Chief Stephen Pruiett and firefighters Greg Clark, Matt Mohr and Dennis Rush made it to California the following day and BSFD Chief William Farhat said this week his team is currently working on the 230,000-plus acre Thomas Fire north of Ventura. As of Tuesday, Dec. 12 that fire was approximately 20 percent contained. 

Farhat said it’s the first time Montana has been called out for an Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), and Big Sky is one of three crews totaling 54 Montana firefighters with fire engines who answered the call. Fifty total crews, known as strike teams, were requested from across the U.S. 

“It all happened very fast,” BSFD Chief William Farhat said. “Montana has never fulfilled a request like that in this manner. EMACs are a big deal and we don’t see them often.”

At least eight BSFD firefighters offered to make the trip, and four were chosen. “Our people were eager to participate,” Farhat said. “They become firefighters because they’re willing to help anyone.”

The Big Sky firefighters will be in California for at least two weeks and possibly longer, Farhat said.

“The reason the call for help was made was because these fires got so bad so quickly,” Farhat said. “And, all the wildland firefighting teams are seasonal, temporary employees, so they’re not employed this time of year. We were told to bring our own engine and gear, and to just get out there. That’s all we knew. It’s an indication of how desperate they are.”

BSFD will bill all costs incurred during the California trip to the state of Montana. It then sends the bill to California, which typically pays for this kind of assistance with a disaster fund. 

“This impacts the people going, and the staff remaining who have to fill the gaps. It’s the whole department who is committing to this,” Farhat said, noting that he’s had people ask why the BSFD would send its team elsewhere. “It’s something we should do because we will need help someday too.”

The Thomas Fire ignited Monday, Dec. 4 and has continued to spread rapidly as relentless Santa Ana winds and dry weather feed the flames. The Big Sky team of four firefighters is part of a total of nearly 7,000 firefighters from across the country working to protect structures and contain the blaze.

In an email sent to the Big Sky community on Dec. 6, Chief Farhat urged everyone to, “Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers that they are safe while they are gone.”

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