HERLONG, Calif. – A combination of wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic kept the Sierra Army Depot fire department busy during 2020.
And now the U.S. Army is recognizing the department for its efforts.
Michael Graves, Sierra Army Depot firefighter, was selected as the U.S. Army firefighter of the year, while the Sierra Army Depot fire department was selected as the Fire Department of the Year by U.S. Army Materiel Command – the U.S. Army’s 4-star command that oversees installation support and materiel readiness to the U.S. Army.
“Sierra Army Depot is proud of the selfless service that our firefighters and first responders exhibit on a daily basis,” Lt. Col. Amy Cory, Sierra Army depot commander, said. “Our first responders are dedicated to protecting the depot, our workforce, and to our surrounding communities when appropriate. They persevere through some of the most physically and mentally demanding conditions you can place upon a human being. The recognition received by both the Department of the Army and Army Materiel Command is a testament to their tireless training and professionalism.”
Graves and the department were formally recognized by the depot, Oct. 14, for the work and achievements that distinguished themselves during calendar year 2020 that led to their recognition at the AMC and Department of the Army levels.
“Having this recognition is a tremendous honor for all of us and gives us even more momentum to strive harder for the next challenge,” Eric Pietrylo, Sierra Army Depot fire chief, said.
The U.S. Army recognized Graves as its Civilian Firefighter of the Year. Graves contributed to the wildfire efforts when he led a Type 3 engine crew on a 14-day deployment to the Sheep Fire, which involved 30,000 acres and destroyed 26 homes in Lassen County, from Aug. 20 – Sept. 4, 2020. He also served as an engine boss during the North Complex Fire which involved 318,000 acres and 2,455 damaged structures.
He worked with 14 other team members while the crew provided 1,000 man hours in the firefighting effort. Graves led offensive fire suppression efforts against the wind-driven Ash wildland fire. He directed six other firefighters, stopping the spread of the fire into the community. Graves also directed fire attack operations on a mobile home fire and prevented a large vegetation fire.
“I’m extremely proud of Mike,” Pietrylo said. “He’s a team player through and through and as a lead firefighter, he safely coaches his crews to success with every task assigned.”
Graves also helped lead the department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic for the depot. He fit tested all firefighters for facemasks, developed personal protective equipment response kits and utilized the kits for quarantined employees. He also facilitated with local public health authorities to build a reserve of medical personal protective equipment to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve learned that in spite of all the additional challenges from COVID-19, that we can adapt to these conditions and still provide the top service we’ve always delivered,” Pietrylo said.
The department as a whole was recognized for its emergency response to 226 structural, wildland and vehicle emergencies in 2020. The department fought 18 fires with no firefighter injuries. The department also established the procedure for transporting employees who were potentially exposed to COVID to an isolated facility, limiting exposure to depot personnel.
“Our fire department is the busiest I’ve ever seen in my career,” Pietrylo, who has been a Department of Defense firefighter for 40 years, said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this team with how they professionally approach each emergency response.”
The experience of 2020 prepared the department for the 2021 fire season, as the department provided protection from the Beckwourth Complex and Dixie fires. The department protected homes and infrastructure in surrounding communities.
“We currently see the results in our preparation from 2020 with this season’s wildland fire activity,” Pietrylo said. “The risk has been close to Sierra Army Depot and it certainly gives us confidence we’re ready, when necessary.”