Blogging from the fireline

by | Aug 20, 2014

With humid conditions, the summer months are typically less active for the North Carolina Forest Service in terms of battling wildfires. However, the same isn’t true for other parts of the country. As part of a cooperative agreement, the N.C. Forest Service has been dispatching employees to assist with suppressing wildfires in the western United States.

A dispatch normally lasts for 14 days, plus two days for travel at each end of the assignment. Jobs filled by NCFS personnel include everything from the top manager on a fire (the incident commander) to members of hand crews digging fire breaks in the soil. At press time, there were 93 employees assigned to out-of-state incidents.

Mecklenburg County Forester Eddie Reese recently sent back an update from the front lines of the South Fork Complex fire in Oregon. Reese’s group is at the end of its dispatch and will return to North Carolina this week.

Western fire detail has an ideological air about it that the public seems to fear and respect. Ever since the early 1900s it has been the job of forestry agencies to contain all wildfires that occur in nature to protect life and property. Over the last 114 years our western areas have been impacted from the decision to completely contain and extinguish all wildfires. Also, our western areas have experienced large insect killed timber areas that aren’t harvested and also extended droughts that have added to the overall fire potential in our western states.

This year, 2014, has been another one for the record books for the Northwestern United States. Northern California, Oregon and Washington have been the victims of all of the above factors coming together to make this year’s fire season extremely active. To date, the N.C. Forest Service as sent more than 120 personnel out to aid in the containment of these wildfires and gain further experience dealing with extreme fires. I had the opportunity to come to Oregon to help this year with the South Fork Complex. The last couple of days have been really active on this fire. We have two N.C. Forest Service hand crews on this fire, as well as myself as Situation Unit Leader, a Division Supervisor, and a Communication Technician. We all have our role to play — from the crew actively engaging the fire on the fireline, to Division Supervisors supervising the crews and other resources on the fireline, to the Communication Technician helping maintain radio communication between all of the personnel on the fire, to my position, Situation Unit Leader, which is as you would think, keeping abreast of the current situation of the fire and creating maps to aid those on the ground with where they are, and where the fire is headed.

Wildfire is a very fluid “beast” that tends to have a mind of its own. The South Fork Complex is no different. On Aug. 7, the fire jumped across a road and river that were side by side, and burned 7,000 acres in less than six hours. Crews and engines tried to keep the fire contained by using burn out operations (burning brush ahead of the fire) to get a handle on it, but the fire spotted across the burn out areas and continued its push. Our plans change daily and our ground personnel are critical to gaining the upper hand on the fire. To date the South Fork complex has burned about 64,990 acres and is 72 percent contained. The incident has changed from a Type 2 Team to a Type 1 Team.

A typical sleeping arrangement for dispatched fire fighters

A typical sleeping arrangement for dispatched fire fighters.

Preparing a weather balloon

Preparing a weather balloon.

The sun is obscured by the thick smoke in the area.

The sun is obscured by the thick smoke in the area.

A helicopter is on its way to drop water on the fire.

A helicopter is on its way to drop water on the fire.