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Firefighter among those on mercy flight from polar area

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Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2001 10:00 pm

A lieutenant for the Delta Fire Protection District is one of eight Americans taken on a mercy flight from Antarctica to New Zealand for much-needed medical care.

Lt. Dave Tamo is being examined for a “severe concussion” he suffered more than six weeks ago at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, he said in a telephone interview from his bed at Christchurch Hospital in New Zealand.

“I was carrying a computer and tripped and hit my head on a corner of a chair,” said Tamo, one of three people admitted to the hospital. “I wasn’t saving anybody’s life or anything.”

Meanwhile, a Lockeford woman and a former Lodi Memorial Hospital physician are also among the more than 200 Americans housed at McMurdo.

Mistie Smith, 27, is a weather forecaster, and Rob LeBarre, a doctor at Lodi Memorial Hospital’s emergency room several years ago, are providing necessary services to people living and working at McMurdo.

Tamo, who left for Antarctica on a one-year leave of absence from the Delta Fire district, was airlifted Tuesday by a Royal New Zealand Air Force plane that took the 7.5-hour flight from Antarctica to Christchurch, a city of more than 300,000.

At McMurdo Station, about 10,000 miles from the United States, Tamo and 10 other Americans boarded the plane for New Zealand. The plane’s engines remained on throughout the one-hour stopover because of 22-below-zero weather.

Antarctica’s harsh, dark winter conditions usually preclude flights in or out of McMurdo, but because of at least two health-related emergencies, the Royal New Zealand Air Force braved the elements.

“It’s a major, major, major ordeal,” Tamo said of the flight operations. “We actually had to make a runway.”

The flight was scheduled for Monday to coincide with the one hour of daylight at McMurdo, 800 miles from the South Pole, but the flight was postponed a day due to bad weather.

Tamo said he was one of three passengers admitted to the New Zealand hospital. He said he is not allowed to discuss the health of any other patient, although the Christchurch newspaper reported that one of the passengers had a serious heart condition.

“Some of them are nonemergency medical situations where better care can be achieved here in Christchurch than we have available at McMurdo,” said John Sherve, a U.S. Antarctic Program spokesman told the Christchurch Press.

Tamo said he tried to recover on his own since his March 11 injury, but he didn’t make any progress.

“I feel all right except when I stand up,” Tamo said.

Tamo took a year’s leave of absence from the Flag City-based Delta Fire Protection District in January to work at McMurdo for Raytheon Polar Services, a Colorado-based company that provides scientific, operations and maintenance services for the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs.

He applied for the job after discovering the opportunity on the Internet.

Tamo and Cropper said that despite weather that reaches way below zero, people get acclimated there.

“It’s really dry,” Tamo said. “It’s not the same cold.”

Normally wearing jeans, a T-shirt and an extremely warm parka, Tamo said the only discomfort comes to the ears, the tip of the nose and the tips of the fingers.

“It’s really comfortable living down there,” he said.

Being a firefighter in Antarctica is somewhat different from patrolling Flag City and the Delta.

“We don’t get a lot of fires,” Tamo said, but the few fires they get travel quickly. “It’s the coldest, windiest, driest place in the world.”

Driest? With ice on the ground?

The ice in Antarctica doesn’t fall from the sky in the form of snow, Tamo said. In fact, you can scoop up some ice in one hand, and it falls into your other hand like sand, he said.

A more common fire department call, Tamo said, is to clean up hazardous materials like glycol, an anti-freeze commonly used in pipes to keep them from breaking.

Occasionally, pipes will break anyway, and the glycol will leak. Tamo, other firefighters and hazardous material workers will rush to remove the glycol from the landscape, he said.

The biggest inconvenience seems to be the lack of fresh food. Excitement comes whenever an airplane brings fresh milk, fruits and vegetables.

“We call them ‘freshies,’ ” Tamo said.

Tamo, who has worked at Delta Fire since February 1996, is also employed by American Medical Response, an ambulance company that serves the Lodi area. He plans to return to North America once his tour of duty at McMurdo ends.

“I’d like to do a little traveling first,” Tamo said, adding that Bali and Indonesia sound intriguing to him.

Smith, the weather forecaster from Lockeford, spent two days housed in a small shack adjacent to the airport runway, where she gave hourly weather reports to the air traffic controller in preparation for Tuesday’s rescue flight to New Zealand, said her mother, Billie Cropper of Lockeford.

“She’s a doll,” Tamo said upon meeting Smith about two weeks ago. “It’s really nice to meet someone from Lodi.”

Smith left her horse ranch in the Lockeford-Clements area in August and will live in McMurdo until November.

“She’s a very outdoors type and loves to travel,” Cropper said.

Needless to say, Smith isn’t the only one who enjoys the outdoors. Most people prefer the outdoors in warmer weather than the 75 degrees below zero that can prevail in Antarctica.

“You acclimate,” Cropper said. “They all live in small apartments.”

Smith went to Antarctica for the first time in 1999. She studied meteorology during a stint in the Air Force.

Although Antarctica may not be known as a romantic haven, it was for Smith. She met her fiancé, Dave Minor of Taft, in 1999, at McMurdo. Minor investigates international hazardous waste for Raytheon Polar Services.

Smith graduated with honors from Lodi High School and San Joaquin Delta College. She was elected Delta’s student body president in the early 1990s, but declined to served when she was accepted into the Air Force, Cropper said.

Efforts to reach LeBarre were unsuccessful.

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