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Western Pa. volunteers battle wildfires in West

| Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Rebecca Emanuele | Trib Total Media
(center) Mike DiRinaldo, assistant chief, Wilpen VFD, is overjoyed as he warmly embraces daughters, Emmy, 4, and Olivia, 2, upon arriving at the DCNR in Laughlintown, Saturday morning, August 30, 2014, after sixteen days away fighting wildfires out West.
Rebecca Emanuele | Trib Total Media
Bill Pyle (left) assistant chief of Hempfield VFD #2, and Mike DiRinaldo, assistant chief of Wilpen VFD, stand next to unloaded gear upon arriving at the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in Laughlintown on Saturday , August 30, 2014, after fighting wildfires for two weeks in Washington and Oregon.

Four Western Pennsylvania firefighters returned home from the West Coast on Saturday, eager to sleep in their beds after weeks sleeping in tents and quelling wildfires.

The volunteers spent two weeks on the front lines of the firefighting efforts, battling blazes in Oregon and Washington. Most had done this before, but the experience this year was not what they expected.

“It was actually a much different experience. We actually didn't see too much fire,” said Mike DiRinaldo, a forester with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Bureau of Forestry in Laughlintown and assistant chief of Wilpen Volunteer Fire Department. The bureau organizes annual trips to help wildfire-prone western states during the summer.

“There's not enough resources to go around out there, so they start pulling in some Eastern crews to give them a hand,” said Bill Pyle, assistant chief of the Hempfield No. 2 VFD.

They arrived at several sites to find that nature had beaten them there.

“We'd show up to a fire, and it would be raining,” DiRinaldo said.

The rain may have helped to keep the fire under control, but it didn't make the work easier.

The team found themselves doing damage control, managing hot spots and keeping the blaze from spreading as the rain took care of the rest.

The volunteers often worked 16-hour days, and when they returned to their camp, they found the weather had cause more unexpected problems.

“We got back, and all our tents were flooded. There were landslides all around us,” Pyle said.

The last fire they fought was in Oregon, in an area so impenetrable that crews could not reach the fire.

“That was actually a smaller fire, but it was in such a wilderness area, they couldn't get to it,” Pyle said.

Instead, they ended their trip digging ditches to keep the fire contained if it spread.

The four volunteers from Western Pennsylvania teamed with about 20 others from across Pennsylvania.

“I know they need help, and it's getting harder to find younger generations. They don't seem to be interested in this stuff,” Pyle said.

This was Pyle's fifth fire-fighting trip with the Forestry Bureau.

The practices learned out West can be applied here in Pennsylvania in case of a major fire, DiRinaldo said.

“It's a great experience to gain some fire knowledge and to bring that experience back here,” he said.

The Bureau of Forestry is in need of more volunteers to travel west next year, DiRinaldo said.

Jacob Tierney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com.

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