Local firefighters return from Texas, could shift to Florida

SAN DIEGO -- A search-and-rescue task force of firefighters from around San Diego County was on its way back from the Houston area Thursday after helping in following Hurricane Harvey, but the team could potentially be deployed again before the week is over, this time against Hurricane Irma, authorities said.

Urban Search and Rescue California Task Force 8 was deployed to Texas on Aug. 26 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and spent six days in the Houston area performing searches, providing medical aid and evaluating damaged structures after Harvey's rain, winds and flood waters ravaged the region, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokeswoman Monica Munoz said.

The San Diego-area task force, which specializes in large-scale urban disasters, and more specifically confined space search-and-rescue operations when structures have collapsed, performed most of its aid and evaluation work in the Cypress-Fairbanks suburb of Houston.

Urban Search & Rescue California Task Force 8 performs door-to-door searches in Baytown, Texas. Credit/San Diego Fire-Rescue Department)

"A lot of our efforts are spent training on earthquakes, but we are FEMA's foot soldiers, so we are trained to handle situations like this too," one of the team's battalion chiefs, Lane Woolery, told the Houston Chronicle last week. "We really truly try to be the Swiss Army knife for FEMA."

The task force of firefighters -- made up of 45 firefighters from a pool of 210 team members, including 24 from the SDFRD and 21 from 13 other county fire departments -- was set to return the same day that a team of disaster medical workers was also expected back in San Diego.

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Disaster Medical Assistance Team California 4, which is federally coordinated like the search-and-rescue task force, was made up of doctors, nurses, pharmacy personnel, paramedics and other security and communications specialists. Before leaving for Texas, Dr. Jake Jacoby, who heads the medical team, said his team expected to assist with health needs that result from massive flooding, including medical care for evacuees who can't reach hospitals.

A thank you card to the Urban Search and Rescue California Task Force 8 from a few community members in Baytown, Texas. Credit/San Diego Fire-Rescue Department

Harvey, which made landfall in Texas as a Category 4 hurricane before stalling over the region as a tropical storm, dropped more than 50 inches of rain in some areas, caused catastrophic flooding throughout the region. It claimed at least 71 lives as of Thursday.

"We are very proud of the members of CA-TF8," SDFRD Chief Brian Fennessy said. "They train year round and maintain a high level of readiness in order to respond wherever their unique training and skills are needed."

The task force, which was deployed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror strikes and in 2005 in response to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, had not been called out of state in nearly a decade. But it could soon be on its second out-of-state emergency call in as many months.

"Their time at home may be short lived," Fennessy said. "CA-TF8 is next up on the national urban search-and-rescue rotation and will likely be deployed to Hurricane Irma and deliver their lifesaving services once again."

Irma, a Category 5 hurricane as of Thursday morning, was one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, with winds between 180 and 185 miles per hour. It was expected to track toward Florida as it moved west. Meteorologists described Irma as "catastrophic," and it already claimed 11 lives in the Caribbean as of Thursday morning after ripping through Barbuda, St. Barthelemy, St. Martin, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands.