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Long days on the fire frontlines

6:02 pm October 3rd, 2012

Fires burning in the forests and brushlands of eastern Washington seem close to westsiders who’ve seen smoky horizons above the Cascade foothills and around Mount Rainier.

For Jason Darwent and Ron Lauer from the Eatonville Fire Department, the blazes are even closer. The two firefighters are in the middle of the action.

Darwent, an off-duty firefighter and paradmedic, and Lauer, a volunteer firefighter, went to the frontlines of the Wenatchee Complex fire Sept. 15. They’re among hundreds of firefighters (976 at the latest count) from around the state who have spent 16-hour days battling the massive, stubborn blaze.

Using their training in wildland firefighting, Darwent and Lauer were put to work by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to bolster emergency medical care. Their coverage area includes Leavenworth, Wenatchee and the east side of State Route 97 from the top of Blewett Pass.

“Due to the dangerous conditions near the fire lines no private ambulances are allowed past certain checkpoints,” said Eatonville fire chief Bob Hudspeth. Darwent and Lauer “are dispatched via radio from the incident command post to wherever there is an injury or illness, treat the victim and transport them down from the fire line to a waiting ambulance or helicopter” for the trip to a hospital.

The Eatonville firefighters, who took a backup aid vehicle with them and weren’t scheduled to return home from the eastern Washington duty until the first week of October, have been working seven days a week on the Wenatchee fire. They and other firefighters have slept in a tent city. The encampments are a sea of bright-colored, one and two-man dome tents.

“Although the days for them are long and arduous, their basic needs” such as food, showers and laundry are taken care of at the base camp, Hudspeth said.

In talking with them by phone, Hudspeth realized that despite the workload, their spirits are buoyed because the medical care they provide “is so important to the firefighters and the communities” affected by the fire.

As of last Friday, the fire had consumed a combined 54,428 acres and was burning north, west and southwest of Wenatchee. It was 36 percent contained, according to officials.

The fire started with lightning strikes Sept. 9 that touched off about 100 fires, many of which merged.

Priority in firefighting efforts has been given to areas with the greatest threat to life and communities.

The hazardous duty has led to one, non-accidental death of a firefighter. The U.S. Fire Administration reported: firefighter Chris Seelye, under contract with the national Forest Service,, suffered a medical emergency Sept. 17 while battling the Wenatchee Complex fire.

Seelye was rushed to a hospital, where he died.

Hudspeth said the wages for the Eatonville personnel, and an additional rate of $67 per hour for 16.5 hours per day, will be paid by DNR and charged back to the Forest Service.

“We’re expecting about $20,000 to be paid to the town” for the use of the Fire Department’s medic unit, he said. That money will cover the cost of fuel for the aid vehicle sent to eastern Washington and personnel backups of Darwent and Lauer during their foret fire duty..

Managers of the Wenatchee Complex Fire effort have commented favorably to Hudspeth about the “professionalism and the willingness of our personnel to take on any job or assignment.”

Jason Darwent and Ron Lauer of the Eatonville Fire Department work their way into a burning area with another of the firefighters battling fires in eastern Washington. (Courtesy photo)

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