Area firefighters lend their services helping to control a 15,000-acre western wildfire


Photo Gallery | Wildfires in Washington State

Ample rain has kept the fire risk fairly low in New England this summer, but three Berkshire firefighters have just wrapped up a pretty busy stretch.

The men have returned last week from Washington, where they spent weeks helping to control a roughly 15,000-acre wildfire.

Jon LaCasse, of Lanesborough, his cousin Max LaCasse, of New Ashford, and Bruce Forgea, of Windsor, were part of a 20-man Massachusetts crew who worked 16-hour days with thousands of others battling what's known as the Chiwaukum Complex fire.

The fire, actually a series of five individual fires, began as a result of lightning strikes near Leavenworth in mid-July. It is the second largest fire in Washington state.

"It's still ripping now," said Jon LaCasse, 25. "It's beyond me."

According to the latest reports, the fire is 40 percent contained but still threatens 190 homes. Experts on the scene estimate that the fires won't end until the heavy rains of October. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation said in a release that wildfires have charred more than 900,000 acres in Washington and Oregon this year.

Joining the Massachusetts crew were New Hampshire, New York, U.S Fish & Wildlife Service and the White Mountain National Forest firefighters.

Last summer, the same trio was deployed to Lolo National Forest in Missoula, Mont. This was LaCasse's second time on such a trip; his cousin now has participated on the state team four times.

Jon LaCasse described the sight of 40,000-foot-tall smoke plumes tall enough to dwarf Mount Everest, the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

On the job, crews traveled in rented vehicles on old logging roads, held the burns within accepted "fire lines" and extinguished hot spots and other burning debris.

Off the job, circumstances weren't too bad, according to LaCasse.

The crews made camp at a retired fish hatchery in Leavenworth, where shower trailers, supply stores and mail service were available, and were served ready-to-eat meals. The federal government paid all expenses to put the crews on the ground.

"It was quite the experience," LaCasse said. "We were more than happy to help contain it. We have a love for this. It's a very fulfilling job."

For years, DCR has sent similar crews to this region of the country to help battle wildfires.

"The commitment and dedication of the DCR and municipal firefighters exemplify the best in all of us," said Maeve Valley Bartlett, state secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary, in a release. "Working together with fire crews from across the country, the Massachusetts crew prevented homes and livelihoods from being ruined by these destructive wildfires."

To reach Phil Demers:
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On Twitter: @BE_PhilD


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