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Pa. firefighters head out West to battle raging wildfires

A crew of Pennsylvania firefighters organized by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) is heading out West to help fight wildfires.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — As fire season continues in the Western U.S., a group of Pennsylvania firefighters organized by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) is heading out West to help.

The crew of 20 includes DCNR employees and volunteers from Harrisburg. The DCNR has long sent summer crews to wildfires and other natural disasters; employees said they had sent more than 200 crews since 1973.

This team, called “Independence,” is the third sent out this year. They will work for two weeks, camping for shelter, before another team comes in to replace them.

They’re heading 2,300 miles away to Boise, Idaho. The state currently has dozens of active wildfires, including the Snake River Complex Fire that has so far burned 108,000 acres.

Some of the firefighters, like Chris Connelly of Huntington County, have previously volunteered at natural disasters in other areas of the country.

“I've been on tornado recovery in Kansas and Oklahoma, I've been down to Katrina, hurricane recovery,” Connelly said.

In the trip to Idaho, Connelly is taking on his first wildfire.

Others have fought fires out West before.

“This is I think my seventh or eighth trip going out to a Western state,” said Garrett Beers, the crew’s squad boss. “It was pretty incredible to see these 150-foot trees completely engulfed in fire.”

“I'm not saying it's not scary but after a while you learn to deal with it,” said crew boss Doug Frederick.

The firefighters received additional training to adjust to Western wildfires. A key difference, for example, is the differing terrains. Western states contain more conifer forests that burn faster and hotter than the mostly deciduous forests in many Eastern states.

“It's a big learning curve out there. Just different suppression techniques we use out there versus here,” Beers said.

Firefighters said they didn’t mind risking their lives for others living in a faraway site.

“If we ever had a fire break out that was awful that we couldn't handle ourselves it would be nice to know that we have people in our back pocket that can help out,” said Katalynn Dildine, wildland fire operations technician for the DCNR’s Division of Forest Fires and Protection.

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