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July 01. 2013 8:57PM

NH's own fire team ready, if called


Toni Tennille cries as she listens to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer speak during a news conference at Prescott High School in Prescott, Arizona July 1, 2013. Fire investigators in central Arizona launched a probe on Monday into how wind-driven flames closed in on and killed 19 specially trained firemen in a tragedy that marked the greatest loss of life among firefighters in a U.S. wildland blaze in 80 years. (REUTERS/Joshua Lott)

CONCORD — New Hampshire has its own 20-member team of elite firefighters who specialize in defusing wildfires, much like the Granite Mountain Hotshots who lost 19 of their 20 members in Arizona on Sunday.

Fire Capt. John Dodge, who coordinates the out-of-state fire response for the Division of Forest and Lands, said the New Hampshire team is ready to go if called.

"They've been available since last Wednesday in the national dispatch system, and have not been called as of this morning," Dodge said Monday. "But it's always possible that they could be."

The team travels throughout the U.S. and Canada, wherever specialized skills in wildfire containment are needed. Last summer, they were dispatched to Idaho, Quebec, Missouri and California. Smaller groups from the unit joined firefighters in Oregon, Minnesota and Montana.

"We don't always send the 20-person crew," said Dodge. "Sometimes it's an engine company, sometimes its personnel to add to other crews. But the standard dispatch unit is a 20-person crew."

Arizona's Granite Mountain Hotshots are a Type One wildfire containment team also known as an interagency hotshot crew, Dodge said. They are organized full-time, and operate exclusively as a wildland fighting crew trained to hike deep into the fire zone with heavy tools to cut down brush and destroy other sources of fuel for the fire.

The New Hampshire unit is a Type Two unit. Its members have the same training and must meet the same rigorous fitness requirements of a hotshot unit, but are not on full-time status.

They come from the ranks of full-time, part-time and volunteer firefighters from throughout the state, said Dodge. Most of them have full-time jobs as firefighters for municipal departments, or in the case of volunteers, in the private sector.

"They take continuing education and have to pass the same physical fitness test every year," Dodge said. "Should they be called, they'll be ready to go."

The New Hampshire unit is posted as "available" on the National Dispatch Database, even though the distance involved means they are not likely to be called. "They try to fill these needs with the closest available resources," Dodge said, "but you never know. In 2009 five crews from New England left Manchester to fight fires in Alaska because it was less expensive to fly them across the continent than to drive 100 firefighters from the Pacific Northwest."

Dodge said the New Hampshire unit trains in the use of fire shelters, the tent-like safety devices designed to deflect heat and trap breathable air that were deployed in Arizona. The loss of life when those shelters proved to be inadequate hits home.

"I've been doing this for 29 years," he said, "and when you wake up to news like this, it literally makes you physically ill."

He said a contingent of New Hampshire firefighters would likely travel to Arizona for the funerals, unless the families involved choose more private services.

"First and foremost, the thoughts and prayers of the professional firefighters of New Hampshire are with the families of the 19 firefighters who lost their lives, as well as with their departments," said David Lang, president of the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire. "I know that all of our members, active or retired, will be thinking about what those folks are going through and their tragic loss."
dsolomon@unionleader.com


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