Champaign firefighters heed Louisiana call

By Mark Rivera

When Louisiana called for help, Champaign firefighters answered.

On Sept. 17, six area firefighters returned from Louisiana where they assisted local fire personnel in relieving devastation caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The aid resulted in a little more than 100 rescues, said Steve Clarkson, deputy chief of the Champaign Fire Department, one of three fire personnel on loan to Terrebonne Parish, La., from Champaign. However, relieving devastation was only part of their effort.

“Our mission was to relieve the firefighters who had been working around the clock,” Clarkson said. “We wanted to give them a chance to go home and check on their families.”

Champaign and Savoy firefighters were alerted to the situation in Louisiana through the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, or MABAS, a statewide system for sharing resources between fire departments in times of need. According to the MABAS Web site, it includes 550 member fire departments throughout Illinois and even has four Wisconsin divisions that share resources with their Illinois counterparts.

Through MABAS, 148 firefighters and 43 pieces of equipment were sent to the ailing Louisiana region, Clarkson said.

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“We appreciate the help,” said Vernon Applewhite, chief of operations during the storm for Houma Fire. “We’ve had these storms before, and dealt with them ourselves, but having people come takes the stress away.”

Applewhite said that before help arrived, Houma Fire “battened down the hatches” and held its own with a skeleton crew.

Clarkson and fellow Champaign firefighters Capt. John Barker and Lt. Brett Johnson left early Sept. 3, along with three other fire personnel from Savoy. The team’s first night was spent in a Baton Rouge Wal-Mart parking lot, Clarkson said.

When the team finally got to their destination of Terrebonne Parish, La., they proceeded to handle basic fire response with local firefighters.

“We lived in the station with them and responded to calls with them,” Johnson said.

One call was to assist an individual who had been stuck at home surrounded by four feet of water, Johnson said.

Ironically water, whether in homes or out of them, caused a great deal of problems for firefighters in Terrebonne. Clarkson said they had to deal with more than only rain.

“When the ground softened because of the rain, trees toppled and damaged the water mains,” he said. He added that this happens more easily in Louisiana because the water mains are not as deep underground compared to Illinois.

Johnson said his most vivid memory from the excursion was not of the damage or the rain. Instead, he said it was the bugs.

Spiders, seeking dry land because of the flooding, were present all over the station, he said. However, insects and arachnids would not keep people from being excited about community effort.

Calvin Wang, freshman in Engineering, said he thought it was wonderful that Champaign could help out in a less-fortunate area.

“It speaks to the strength of the community,” Wang said.

When Champaign fire personnel left, water was starting to recede, and the local fire department was back to normal operation, Johnson said, adding that he thought the effort was successful.

“Any time you go down and help somebody is a success,” he said.