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Mitchell native shares experience fighting wildfires in California

Skylar Neugebauer, formerly of Mitchell, poses for a photo during a prescribed burn on the Umatilla National Forest located in Oregon and Washington. A week after the photo was taken in early October, Neugebauer was sent to northern California to help fight the destructive wildfires. (Submitted photo)

For the past week and a half, 16-hour days dominated Skylar Neugebauer’s life as he worked to protect northern California from further fire damage.

The Mitchell native was one of 11,000 firefighters who helped battle the destructive fire that burned more than 245,000 acres in the Golden State.

The wildfires began on Oct. 8 and have been dubbed the “October Fire Siege” by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). An estimated 100,000 people were forced to evacuate northern California, where approximately 8,400 structures were destroyed. Forty-two people have died from the fires, according to CAL FIRE.

Neugebauer arrived on scene in California on Oct. 14. And Sunday, after nine days on the frontlines helping contain wildfires in northern California, he was sent home. He now lives in Clarkston, Washington.

Twenty-seven-year-old Neugebauer, who graduated from Mitchell High School in 2009, was stationed at the Central LNU Complex fire camp. Neugebauer said the camp is one of four major fire complexes in California.

Neugebauer was assigned to the Tubbs Fire — which burns in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties in northern California — as a part of a 20-person Initial Attack Handcrew.

A handcrew, according to the U.S. Forest Service, is a team of firefighters tasked with constructing a fireline, which is used to control the wildfire, burn out fire areas and “mop up” after the fire. A fireline is a strip of land cleared of flammable materials and dug down to mineral soil.

“I actually haven't seen any fire. When fires get this big, a big box strategy is applied, where indirect fire line is put in as a contingency,” Neugebauer said. “ … So in the event the fire jumps the direct line, we have secondary lines we can potentially stop the fire at.”

And for Neugebauer, who has been fighting fires since the summer of 2009, it’s “just another fire.” He said the California fires aren’t anything out of the norm for him, and nothing he hasn’t seen before.

Neugebauer works for the Umatilla National Forest and becoming a firefighter was a passion he’s always had. He wanted to be like his grandfather, Dean Strand, who worked as a structure firefighter with the Mitchell Fire Division.

“After I graduated I thought I was following his footsteps by getting a firefighter job but the job was fighting forest fires and I fell in love with it,” he said.

Since then, he’s traveled to California four different times for wildfires. He’s also been to Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Washington and Alaska fighting wildfires.

And while helping in California with the fires isn’t too unusual for him, he was surprised by the supportive people living amidst the destruction.

Neugebauer describes fire camp “like a boom town.” And when he first arrived, there were approximately 3,200 fire and support personnel in his camp, but had seen as many as 5,400 people in the past few weeks.

But it’s the California natives happily accepting the thousands of firefighters into their state who have made a difference, he said.

“The everyday people down here are really supportive of the firefighters fighting the fires. They have put up homemade signs on every fence and street corners showing their support and gratitude for the guys out on the line,” he said. “And radio stations are always having people call in telling us thank you. It's really amazing.”

Due to the respect of people who have lost their homes, Neugebauer declined to describe the destruction he’s seen in California. For him, it’s a sad ordeal, but just a part of the job.

“Again it feels like just another fire when you have been doing it for eight fire seasons,” he said.