As Tony Bardzilouskas and Westley Stout followed the news reports of massive wildfires consuming thousands of acres out west this summer, they had a hunch that their lives in Northeastern Pennsylvania were about to change.
Both men work for the state Bureau of Forestry in the Lackawanna State Forest, jobs that take them to some of the most scenic places in the region.
But earlier this month, Bardzilouskas and Stout found themselves in southern California, helping to fight wildfires so big they were measured not in acres but square miles.
Bardzilouskas and Stout were summoned to California as part of a cooperative agreement between the Bureau of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service to provide personnel and resources wherever they are needed in the country.
‚??We post what resources are available, and when there‚??s a need in the country they‚??ll call,‚?Ě said DCNR district forester Nick Lylo, who has also been summoned to aid the fire command logistics section in other states. ‚??It‚??s structured like a military operation.‚?Ě
It‚??s an operation that Bardzilouskas and Stout were happy to be a part of when the call for assistance came from California.
‚??You watch the news and see what‚??s happening, so you know there‚??s a chance you may get the call,‚?Ě Bardzilouskas said. ‚??This is my eighth assignment, so I‚??ve dealt with it before. You just keep your gear ready.‚?Ě
Adding to the urgency of the fires in California was the wildfire that struck Colorado earlier this summer, torching more than 300 homes and consuming more than 14,000 acres.
‚??There was certainly a heightened sense of awareness going into this one,‚?Ě Stout said.
And as both men were fully aware, no assignment is routine. Certainly not the 19 days they spent in the southern California desert.
‚??There was a lot of shrub-type bushes and highly flammable fuels, so the fires were extremely fast-moving,‚?Ě Bardzilouskas said. ‚??The overall landscape out there is just much larger and steeper, which makes the access difficult at times. We had to walk an average of five miles just to get in because the access wasn‚??t there.‚?Ě
Those long treks just to reach the fire required the firefighters to spend the night on the scene after they worked a 16-hour day.
The long days and nights left Stout with images he will never forget.
‚??There were massive tracts of wind turbines ‚?? hundreds of them, near the fire. That was a big control issue,‚?Ě he said. ‚??After the fire goes through, the landscape looks like the moon. It‚??s a wasteland of ash and charred sticks.‚?Ě
And that wasteland would present another challenge to the firefighters the next day.
During the night, Stout said he could hear trees falling in areas that had already been burned. The fire weakened the root systems enough that the trees gave way, forcing crews to cut new access routes to continue their fight.
And then there was the heat. Daytime temperatures reached 106 degrees, Stout said, making the work even more demanding.
But the memory that sticks with Bardzilouskas and Stout the most is the sheer power of the fire.
‚??Just the immense size of the flames, how they towered,‚?Ě Bardzilouskas said. ‚??It sounds like a train when the trees are torching up. You can almost feel the energy.‚?Ě
Stout said the flames reached heights of almost 200 feet when they climbed tall trees.
‚??Out west there‚??s a lot of pitch pine, ponderosa pine and juniper ‚?? all trees with a lot of resin content and they burn almost explosively,‚?Ě he said. ‚??It‚??s just like the scrub oak here. The fire will just race through it.‚?Ě
Bardzilouskas and Stout fought alongside firefighters from California and Interagency Hotshot Crews ‚?? teams of professional firefighters employed by the federal government.
The experience of fighting fires in other states gave Bardzilouskas and Stout valuable experience in dealing with wildfires in Pennsylvania, which they said are scaled-down versions of the fires out west.
‚??There is so much real estate out there and the wildfires can get so large that it turns into a containment process,‚?Ě Bardzilouskas said.
And while the firefighters are trying to prevent the flames from spreading, Stout said safety is always paramount.
‚??There‚??s no such thing as another day at the office with a job like this. If you get complacent, that‚??s when bad things happen,‚?Ě he said. ‚??It‚??s about doing a dangerous job as safely as possible, whether it‚??s an acre-and-a-half brush fire in Tunkhannock or a thousand acres in the Mojave Desert.‚?Ě
Tony Bardzilouskas, 29, resides in Gouldsboro and is a maintenance repairman with the Bureau of Forestry in the Lackawanna State Forest. Since 2006, he has been called to fight wildfires in Idaho, Montana, northern and southern California, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming. Bardzilouskas is certified as a B-level faller, meaning he carries a chainsaw to fight the flames by felling trees and establishing fire lines. Cutting down certain trees is important, he said, because if a fire climbs to the top it can throw sparks and spread the wildfire to other areas.
Westley Stout, 44, lives in Pittston and is a forest patrolman with the Bureau of Forestry in the Lackawanna State Forest. He is certified as a firefighter type 2, putting him in charge of advancing hose lines into the fire area and performing initial attack or mop-up duty. Stout also carries a hand tool at all times to dig lines or trenches to help maintain fire lines.