For the fourth time in 13 years, Dave Guccini, a lifelong resident of the region, traveled west to battle a fire that consumed over 100,000 acres of land in the state of Idaho this summer. A Tafton volunteer fireman for 37 years, Guccini has traveled west before, first in 1998 to Florida and later to Idaho twice and California once.
Guccini's trips west first began in 1997, when he took training courses through the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). The fires out west, he said, are a lot different because they aren't structural fires. The circumstances of the fires, he said, are a challenge as they work around the weather. Plus, the fires typically occur in the rural wilderness, where resources aren't readily available. When he arrived in Idaho this summer, he said the fire was pretty well contained, and the group he was with did, "a lot of mop up." That work, he said with a smile is the, "grunt work."
A Forest Fire Specialist Supervisor with DCNR, Bill Delling explained that Guccini's training was extensive and one part of it, he had to walk three miles with a 45 pound pack in 45 minutes. Once he passed that, before he went west, Guccini had to stay at a training camp that mimicked where he would be out of state. Additionally, Delling said they are taught about all the various kinds of hazards that include animals, footing, fire behavior and more.
Rather than battling the roaring flames that are shown on TV, a modest Guccini said the crew simply put smoldering stumps out, dug out the roots and made sure the fire line was intact. Also, he had to ensure there weren't any hot spots. But, on the second day he did experience a flare up, where his crew had to call in a helicopter to drop water. The water, he said, helped the crew because the fire was moving. Of the fires he has been to, Guccini said Idaho was the most difficult because of the terrain and nature of the fires. The terrain, he said, is fuel in itself, and to extinguish a fire it isn't simply putting water on the fire. Instead, he said, "extinguishing fires is a science" because of the behavior of the fire, along with the flame length and height, with the additional conditions of the wind and the amount of fuel, all has to be factored into the way of handling the fires.
Because water isn't readily available, tankers drop what Guccinicalled a "slurry," that has a red coloring. Going back to the science, he explained that if water is poured on a leaf it will run off, whereas if something is added to it, the liquid will adhere more.
As a "swamper," it was Guccini's responsibility to support a"sawyer." The sawyer cut trees with a chainsaw, and the swamper followed behind, carrying fuel and an axe, while also moving tree branches and brush.
Before the crew went west, they were told that 20 were going and 20 would return. All returned without any serious injuries, only one member got sick and several had blisters. Guccini said that, "it's all about the boots."
Every trip is approximately 17 days, where the volunteers can be called again. Guccini said his sisters don't like that he goes, but with a chuckle he said he likes going. The first couple of days of this trip, he admitted were tough and they, "kicked me," with temperatures reaching 90 degrees. The altitude and nature of the work, climbing mountains while also fighting a fire, he said it is very physically demanding.
Although Guccini is 61, there were two older crew members. One man was 72 and another was 74. The structure of the job, he said is like the military because there is a lot of discipline where people receive orders and don't question them unless they are uncomfortable. Whether he will go when he is 74, Guccini said probably not because age is against him.
On past trips, Guccini saw flames reach 200 feet into the air, which he said it was like a, "marvel." Not that he was scared; Guccini simply said fire is something that has to be respected as it encompasses all of the forces of nature.
People, he said are very appreciative of the firefighters. Once, in Florida, people gave the firemen a standing ovation and offered to buy them drinks. The crew was told they were heroes, to which Guicci said that isn't true because they were all just doing their jobs.
Rather than relaxing and traveling, a retired army veteran and engineer from the Tobyhanna Army Depot, Guccini said he goes west because it is his chance to give something back. There is the challenge to it, but more so, he said it is an opportunity to be a good Samaritan. Mainly though, he added that there is a need for it.
At this time, Guicci says he will only stop volunteering with Tafton when he dies. Maybe he will cut back, but the key word is, "maybe." He added that volunteers are needed and not just those who will fight the fires. Whether people are 14 as a junior or 94 years old, he said everyone has something to offer.