NAUGATUCK — While thousands of people fled the wildfire that ravaged their northern California communities this month, Naugatuck resident Scott Moro and 19 other Connecticut firefighters headed into those towns in an attempt to save property and livelihoods.
Moro, 47, is part of a Connecticut fire crew organized by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection that heads to raging wildfires around North America to help local crews.
“This is an opportunity to help people who really need it,” Moro said.
The team Moro is on came back last Friday from a 17-day trip to fight a blaze known as the Eiler Fire in Burney and Etna, two towns in northern California. The Eiler Fire burned from July 31 to Aug. 23 and ripped through 32,416 acres, according to California fire data found on the state’s official website.
It destroyed seven residences, two commercial buildings and 12 outbuildings, and injured 11 people, according to the data. Thousands were evacuated from their homes as a safety precaution. The cause remains under investigation.
Standing at the base of a mountain and seeing an inferno demolishing everything in its path and sending up plumes of black smoke visible for miles is a frightening experience, Moro said.
“It’s amazing how fast those flames can move. It definitely puts life into perspective when you see something like that,” he said. “You know all the things that could go wrong, and you’re just guided by your training to help you through.”
That training can be daunting, even for a veteran like Moro.
Moro, who has three children, is a firefighter at Southbury Training School and has been with the department for seven years. He was also a volunteer with the Southbury Volunteer Fire Department, where he served as a lieutenant for a period. He no longer is with the Southbury volunteers because he has moved to Naugatuck.
About five years ago, he saw a bulletin posted in the department’s headquarters asking if anyone was interested in working with DEEP firefighters around the country in times of need. He signed up immediately.
To start, he had to take a five-day class, part of which included being out in the wilderness practicing real-life situations. Every year, he has to take a re-certification course, which includes a 3-mile walk with a 45-pound pack on his back — participants must complete it within 45 minutes and are not allowed to run.
The training came in handy during the California trip, Moro said. On the first day, the Connecticut team made a 1,400-foot ascent to begin fighting the fire. Firefighters frequently hiked more than a half-mile with all of their gear to fight the flames.
“It’s obviously much different from anything we do in Connecticut,” he said.
The California trip marked the first time in 2014 that a Connecticut team went to help with a fire out of state. Moro said he went to Montana to help fight a fire two years ago and to Canada last year.
The team is part of Connecticut’s reciprocal aid program operated by the U.S. Forest Service. The state receives full reimbursement for all associated wildfire crew deployment costs from the requesting agency, according to DEEP. Under the program, trained personnel from other parts of the nation are available to assist Connecticut in the event of a fire emergency.
The Connecticut crew has about 60 people. Of the 20 who went on the California trip, 14 were DEEP employees and six were local firefighters.
The firefighters are paid a little more than $17 an hour for the time they are away. Moro said they don’t do it for the money.
“It’s a good feeling knowing that you might have had a part in saving someone’s home and property,” he said. “That’s why we all do it.”