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Five minutes with Kirk Wanless

Kirk Wanless talks with local news media. Photo: Kirk Wanless

On September 8, as the Creek Fire raged in the Sierra National Forest, National Guard helicopters evacuated 250 campers and hikers to the airport 40 miles away in Fresno, Calif. Fresno Fire Department Battalion Chief Kirk Wanless from North Fresno Church (Mennonite Brethren) was there to receive them.

How did you spring into action?

The initial 911 call led us to believe this was going to be one of the biggest mass casualty incidents we’ve had. We set up a multicasualty command center at the airport but ultimately only had to transport 10 people to the hospital, three with moderate to severe burns. The big challenge was what to do with 250 people late at night with no ability to get home. I was the logistics guy to find them shelter for the night.

How did you find places for them all?

Normally we would call the Red Cross, but they were overwhelmed providing resources for other wildfire evacuees. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the county health department had set up an alternate medical care facility in Fresno as an overflow for the hospitals. We used city buses to transport the evacuees to that facility.

Was the Fresno Fire Department involved in other ways?

When something big like the Creek Fire happens, the closest local resources go up to help. Fresno had 32 people committed and eight pieces of firefighting equipment. It was our crews who burned around Camp Keola, the Mennonite camp where our church youth go in the summer. Kudos to them for making the good backfires that saved the camp.

Is your logistics role a typical assignment?

One of the really fun things about my job is that when there’s a situation and no one knows what to do, they call the fire department. Firefighters don’t typically have a classical education, but we are trained in problem solving. We may not have the skills or tools to solve a problem, but we’ll figure it out.

Kirk Wanless took this photo of the Creek Fire when he was there briefly on the day after the fire started. Huntington Lake is in the foreground.

What is causing such a destructive wildfire season in California?

Fire is a multi-faceted issue. Climate change has placed us in a bad period of drought and high tree mortality. Another factor is more and more people living in the wildland environment. When we have communities, ranches, logging operations in the Sierra National Forest, we can’t let these fires burn out like they would normally which leaves all kinds of fuels that make these fires more intense.

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