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Suffolk forest ranger helps build 'mini city' for those battling California's Dixie wildfire

State DEC Forest Ranger Bryan Gallagher, who lives

State DEC Forest Ranger Bryan Gallagher, who lives in the East End, recently returned from a two-week California assignment to help fight the Dixie Fire, seen at right in Plumas County in August. Credit: Composite: NYSDEC; AP

A small army of firefighters from across the country descended on California in recent months to battle, and then recover from, the Dixie Fire, the largest wildfire in the Golden State's history.

Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Bryan Gallagher, 53, who lives on Suffolk's East End, was tasked with building what he called a "mini city" capable of providing first responders everything from food and shelter to showers and transportation.

Gallagher, a 23-year veteran of the department, returned home last Monday after spending the previous two weeks as a facility unit leader in the Dixie Fire recovery operations.

The fire, which started July 13, burned more than 963,000 acres on the Plumas National Forest, Lassen National Forest and Lassen Volcanic National Park, as well as land in five counties.

"The challenge was how to build this little city," Gallagher, a married father of two, said Thursday. "How do you get people in a safe place where they can stay away from the smoke while they're off shift?"

By the time Gallagher arrived in Northern California, the massive blaze had been largely contained. But putting out the fire is only the first step.

Miles of roads damaged by the fire needed to be repaired while thousands of dead trees were in immediate danger of collapsing onto public arteries and highways, potentially jeopardizing public safety.

Gallagher and his team rented an abandoned campground to build a "spike camp" that could provide shelter, meals, electricity, sanitation and showers for thousands of firefighters from across the nation.

"There's a lot of things to be taken care of such as medical and communication," said Gallagher, who has responded to more than a dozen West Coast fires during his career. " … Getting supplies, facilities, food and transportation from point A to B. That's what Logistics does."

Along the way, Gallagher and his team battled residual smoke, difficult and often remote terrain and temperatures that would dip into the 20s while in the higher elevation of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

"It's difficult. They're long days," Gallagher said. "If you're a firefighter or support staff, you're working 16-hour days for what is typically a 14-day assignment with no days off."

On Wednesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul welcomed home Gallagher and three other state wildland firefighters who had battled blazes in California and Oregon. Their return, Hochul said, wraps up a fire season during which New York firefighters traveled to four states to battle seven wildfires burning nearly 1.7 million acres of land.

"New York's brave wildland firefighters are always ready to help protect people and property no matter how dangerous the situation," she said. "And I am so thankful for their efforts to make a difference among seemingly insurmountable odds."

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said every year dozens of New York's wildland firefighters sign up to protect communities in other states without knowing where the assignment will take them.

"DEC's forest rangers play valuable roles as experts in incident command, along with the trained wildland firefighters from across agency divisions and volunteers who answer the call to help get raging wildfires under control," Seggos said.

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