"There's a point where it becomes historical. I've been in the business for over 25 years on this department. I've never seen the destruction and devastation that we had last year. It didn't compare- it was the worst we'd ever seen, probably in the state."
Potter County Fire-Rescue Chief Richard Lake has seen a lot of flames throughout his 25 years with the fire department. His statement says it all. After what they witnessed last year, firefighters all across the Panhandle are gearing up to fight some record-breaking fires. But Lake pointed out nothing can fully prepare them for what they could go up against.
"We lost major residential areas," he said. We lost major farmland areas. We suffered the loss of a firefighter last year. We have suffered loss, I think, on a major scale that nobody really can be ready for."
Last year, Potter County alone lost more than 37,000 acres of land, 50 homes and countless buildings. One wildfire snuck its way into the city limits and destroyed yet another home.
Some of the staff with Potter County Fire-Rescue- three to be exact- are on salary, but the other 71 firefighters are volunteers. Battling last year's blazes required a lot of extra time and work from the volunteers- extra time and work on top of other full-time jobs and family responsibilities.
"It used to be where employers were mindful of volunteer firefighters," Lake said, "but that's not the case anymore. You know, employers want their people at work. So we have to juggle our schedule around their work schedule."
Station Four Captain Brandon Colpetzer fights fires alongside his 16-year-old son, but when last year's wildfires broke out, family time was over.
"Willow Creek burnt out- I was there for the whole thing. I went home and slept for a couple of hours and then came back. But we were there almost the whole time."
Some of the wildfires were so aggressive that crews would swapped out while the trucks were running. Lake said it is imperative the firefighters get rest so they do not cause more harm than good.
"There's a point that you just have to lay down and take a quick nap, get away from it for a few hours and then come back," Colpetzer added. "You can't continue pushing through it and run the risk of hurting whoever's on the truck with you."
Though some of what they saw was nearly unbelievable, the men and women took the opportunity as a learning experience. And some of them say they feel that experience helped them to get ready for what they may face this year.
"It was devastating," Volunteer Firefighter Tracy Gaddis stated. "It was something I haven't really been up against, you know, a lot. It was a hard experience, but I got in there and I did the best that I could."
The trucks are fueled. equipment has been replaced and ears are on alert. As soon as the bell goes off, it could lead firefighters to the next monumental inferno.