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W.Va. firefighters help battle Montana blaze

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tim Casto said he was a little tired when he got back from Montana last week.

It was something of an understatement. Casto, a firefighter with the West Virginia Division of Forestry, had just spent two weeks helping battle one of Montana's largest summer wildfires.

"The area we were in was rugged terrain, really steep and rocky," recalled Casto, boss of a crew of 20 firefighters called on to fight the Emigrant fire near Livingston, Mont.

"It was kind of tough working conditions."

Casto's crew -- 10 firefighters from the West Virginia Division of Forestry, five from volunteer fire departments around the state and five from neighboring Pennsylvania -- were dispatched to Montana on Aug. 19.

The Emigrant fire, named for a nearby peak and located in the mountainous portion of the Gallatin National Forest south of Livingston, had been burning since July 21, thought to have been caused by a lightning strike. When they got to Montana, Casto and his team were put to work trying to thwart the 11,000-acre wildfire.

"You help them with whatever they want you to do," Casto said.

Casto and his crew spent their days hiking up steep slopes as high as 8,000 feet, he said. At one point, they had to be airlifted to a mountaintop site that was too far away to walk.

The crew spent two weeks in the forest at different base camps.

"You sleep in a tent and on the ground," Casto said. Some of the camps have showers, but others don't.

Eventually, the combination of hard work by firefighters and cooperative weather helped tame the Emigrant fire. Although a couple of small pockets remained burning on Thursday, the fire had almost burned itself out.

Casto said it isn't uncommon for Forestry-led firefighters to be called on to help fight Western wildfires. West Virginia firefighters sign up each year to be on call for just such emergencies.

When the weather gets hot enough and dry enough -- usually around August -- the calls will invariably come, he said.

Being called to help fight the Emigrant fire wasn't an unusual occurrence for West Virginia firefighters. But it was a lot of hard, hot, thirsty work.

"We spent two days getting there and two days getting home, but everything in between was working on the fire," Casto said.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Friday praised the work of the volunteer firefighters.

"The work crews like these do isn't easy," Tomblin said in a statement. "The work they do is hot, dangerous and grueling, but our West Virginia crews are always eager to assist.

"That's one of the most amazing things about this great state. Our people are always ready to lend a helping hand -- whether at home or afar."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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