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4 from Westmoreland, Somerset return from wildfire battle out West

| Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
(L-R) Members of the Pennsylvania Specialized Wildland Fire Crew Doug Langford of Latrobe, Brandon Hosselrode of Hyndman, Somerset County, Bill Pyler of Greensburg and Andy Walker of Rockwood, Somerset County, stand for a portrait after returning from 17 days of fighting wildfires in Iowa, Nevada, and Oregon on Thursday, August 29, 2013.

Four area men who spent more than two weeks battling wildfires in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon as part of a 20-member hand crew returned to their homes in Westmoreland and Somerset counties Thursday afternoon.

The crew left its mobilization center in Harrisburg Aug. 13 to help contain blazes in the western states using chain saws, hand tools and hoses after the U.S. Forest Service called for reinforcements to local and federal efforts.

Western wildfire veterans Bill Pyle, 53, of Greensburg; Doug Langford, 31, of Latrobe; and Andy Walker, 31, of Rockwood were joined by rookie Brandon Hosselrode of Hyndman.

Walker, who serves as rescue captain and training officer at New Centerville & Rural Volunteer Fire Company, had been called out five times previously to fight fires in Idaho, northern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Montana.

“We got bumped around to three smaller fires. Most of my other trips, it was one large fire that we worked at the whole time,” he said. “My other trips, it was always big timber country, pretty much all woods. This one, two out of the three were grassy, shrub type country, open country, so that was different for me.”

The crew was working mostly to contain and prevent fires from rekindling in areas where the blazes had already passed through.

“In most cases there was some type of line established or at least a retardant line, and it was our job to take away all the heat or anything that had potential of getting across the line and putting it off to the races again,” Walker said.

Langford, a forester for the state's Bureau of Forestry, said that while the main surge of the fire had passed through, the areas the crew was working remained at risk of rekindling.

“When that happens, there's less manpower per fire,” he said. “When you're doing that containment, even though the main fire has come through, a lot of fuels haven't already burned, so a lot of them have been pre-treated and heated that could rekindle at any point. It's important to secure the lines and do those types of things.”

Pyle, the 2nd assistant chief at Hempfield Volunteer Fire Department, said he took time off from his job with a trucking company to join the crew. It was his fourth time battling western wildfires.

Crew members go through classroom training and yearly physical fitness tests, and must attend an intense weekend-long training camp at least once every three years.

For Hosselrode, his first experience fighting wildfires outside a training setting provided valuable knowledge.

“I learned a lot while we were out there and I get to bring it back here in case a fire would happen. I can use that knowledge,” he said.

The crew worked 14 straight shifts after arriving, starting in Idaho then traveling to Nevada and Oregon.

“You gain lots of experience in a short period of time that in Pennsylvania we don't have such a long fire season and such consistency with that,” Langford said. “You can pack in a lot of knowledge and experience in a short period of time out there that you can bring back and apply to this area.”

Another area Bureau of Forestry forester, Mike DiRinaldo of Ligonier Township, is serving on another crew still fighting a rim fire in California near Yosemite National Park.

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913, or greinbold@tribweb.com.

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