Balloons, signs and at least 70 cheering people greeted the returning members of CA-Task Force 5 as their armada of trucks and equipment rolled through the gates of the Orange County Fire Authority’s headquarters in Irvine on Thursday night.
The 45-member team — comprised mostly of Urban Search and Rescue experts from Anaheim Fire & Rescue, the Orange Fire Department and OCFA — arrived in Houston on Monday, Sept. 4 where they performed more than 1,000 rescues of people stranded in, or in many cases, on top of their homes due to severe flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
The team included Anaheim firefighters Rick Romero from Fire Station 6, and Ryan Lazar, Rob Fronaberger and Taylor Smith from Fire Station 2. Shortly after they arrived at the headquarters Sept. 7, they got a chance to see their families and friends again, and were treated to a ceremony with fire officials and members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
The firefighters, tired and glad to be home, spoke of the satisfaction of being able to help in such a crisis.
“This is what we train for,” said Lazar. “Your training kicks in and you just do your job.”
Lazar called the coordination of multiple agencies operating at the request of FEMA “seamless” and praised the entire community of doctors, nurses, boat operators, fellow firefighters and volunteers who helped in the rescue efforts. “I’m proud to be a part of this task force.”
Fronaberger described the experience as “maxing out any and all training I’ve had.”
Hyper-focused on rescues, Fronaberger and others quickly lost count of how many people were actually being saved. “We didn’t even know how widespread things were until we were done,” Fronaberger said. “We were going on little sleep, but we had one guy keeping track, just making hash marks on paper. Soon it was pages. It was pretty surreal.”
Ultimately, it was impossible to save everyone, but the loss of life, Fronaberger said, “was lots lower than I expected, given how quickly the water was moving.”
Lazar said they arrived in Houston just 26 hours after getting the call, and after being given their assignments, got right to work. They were able to reach more than 300 people that first day.
“That’s exactly what you want to do,” Lazar said. “You don’t want to sit around.”
The days were long, he said, but “you go off adrenaline and training. We went to bed about 1 a.m. that first night and were woken up again at about 3 a.m. I’ve never been so exhausted.”
But the second day, the team was able to reach more than 700 people, some whom had been standing in water all night.
Lazar and the others agreed it was a once-in-a-career opportunity.
“My dad was on the task force for years and never got to go,” Lazar said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to go again, but I want to.”
“In a heartbeat,” he said.