Houston-area firefighters returning from California wildfires in time for Thanksgiving

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Baytown firefighters who spent the last week battling deadly blazes in California arrived back home Wednesday in the most Houston way possible – late, because of traffic.

But the hour-or-so delay was nothing compared to the nine days that the four-man crew from Baytown Fire Department Station 7 was away from home.

The crew was just a small part of nearly 200 firefighters around the state who were deployed to help fight the wildfires in the country’s most populous state.

The firefighters were part of the Texas A&M Forest Service’s Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System, known as TIFMAS.

They spent most of their time tapping out hot spots in the wake of the Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles.

Now that the Baytown firefighters are back on their home turf, they’re eager to get back into protecting life and property in the 76,000-person city east of Houston.

But before they sign back on for their shift, there’s one thing standing in the way – Thanksgiving with family. For Baytown firefighter Aaron McNeil, who arrived back in town from California on Wednesday, that means even more driving to his hometown of Orange.

“We’re all glad to be home,” he said as other Baytown firefighters greeted him and his three fellow firefighters.

He and the three others – Engineer Operator Robert Hebert, firefighter Kevin Lowell and Lt. Alfred Duran – encountered heavy fire damage in some areas like nothing they’ve ever seen.

“It was a lot of destruction,” McNeil said. “It was different. Down here, we’re used to a lot of flooding. Up there, there are a lot of fires.”

Crews from the North Montgomery County Fire Department in Willis also returned home Wednesday, just in time for the holiday with their families.

“It was pretty devastating,” North Montgomery County Fire Department Battalion Chief Bill Derks said, of the  “For miles, it was just burned up country, structures (burned down), and lots of people who didn’t have places to go.”

In all, 81 people have been found dead as a result of the Camp Fire in Northern California  as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Associated Press.

Jay R. Jordan covers breaking news in the Houston area. Read him on our breaking news site, Chron.com, and our subscriber site, HoustonChronicle.com | Follow him on Twitter at @JayRJordan | Email him at jay.jordan@chron.com | Text CHRON to 77453 to receive breaking news alerts by text message