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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Westy firefighters rescue citizens during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Westy firefighters rescue citizens during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Westminster Fire Paramedic Scott Wilmes was tired.  As a part of the Colorado Task Force 1 (CO-TF1), he had just completed almost two weeks of search and rescue operations in Beaumont, Texas to help survivors of Hurricane Harvey. 

Deployed on Saturday, Aug. 26, Wilmes and the task force (a Colorado-based team under the Federal Emergency Management Agency) provided medical attention to residents in need and searched neighborhoods for damage and fatalities. His team was a type one deployment, which means they had about 40 people, including medics and a hazmat tractor trailer.

With waters receding and local first responders able to handle the load again, CO-TF1 was ready to head back home to relax and recover.  However, Hurricane Irma had other plans.

Hurricane Irma hit Florida the morning of Sunday, Sept. 10, ripping off roofs, flooding coastal cities, and knocking out power to more than 6.8 million people. Irma hit the Florida Keys as a category 4 hurricane and later the mainland as a category 3.

“I was deployed and joined Wilmes at the Marine Corps Logistic Center in Albany, Georgia,” said Westminster Fire Training Chief Dave Maikranz. “Then we were at the Orange County Convention Center during the hurricane as we waited for it to abate and find out where we needed to be and what we needed to do.”

The task force had been upgraded from the type one deployment to type three which meant a total of 90 CO-TF1 in a 20 vehicle convoy members arrived to help Florida. They joined 15 other Urban Search and Rescue Task forces, an Incident Support Team, three Hazardous Materials Equipment Push Packages, and four Mission Ready Packages for a total of over 1,300 personnel. There were even task forces from other countries like Mexico and Israel, who were in the U.S. training, who joined the rescue efforts.

The first day, Tuesday, Sept. 12, Wilmes, Maikranz and the CO-TF1 got to work. They searched 100 miles of Florida Keys starting at Boca Chica Key and progressing northward to Sugarloaf Key. They encountered sunk boats, alligators, downed trees and damaged structures. Medical services were provided as the team searched for Floridians both living and dead. That night they slept on cots and ate MREs in the parking lot for Jacobs Aquatic Center, a water park.

“If you can believe it, there were people still in Key West who were patronizing bars the day after the hurricane,” said Maikranz. “It was uplifting to see people in good spirits helping each other.”

The next day the task force searched and assisted in the Sugarloaf Key and Saddlebunch Key areas. They evaluated over 1,000 structures that day and saw lots of damage to buildings and people in need of assistance.

“Our forward operating base was at a Shell station,” said Maikranz. “When we found people we would call for an ambulance and let the local fire department know. We also saw looting, which we didn’t stop, but notified the military and local authorities.”

On the last day of search and rescue operations, Thursday, Sept. 14, CO-TF1 searched from Marathon all the way north to Key Largo, which included Duck Key, Long Key, Conches Key and Matecumba.

Wilmes flew back to Colorado on Friday, Sept. 15 and Maikranz drove, as a part of the convoy, back to Colorado and arrived on Tuesday, Sept. 19.

“I wish we could have continued to help people longer. However, everything the task force does makes a difference. I’m proud that Scott and I are a part of it,” said Maikranz.

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