“Growing up in Ashe county, I was surrounded by forests,” said Gail Bledsoe, Fire Chief with the N.C. Forest Service. “It was a place of peace for me and has always been like home.” As a child, Gail was surrounded by forestry, not only because that was her playground, but also because her family was very involved with logging. Although she didn’t initially major in forestry at N.C. State University, after three years she decided to stop running from her fate and pursue a career in forestry. “I always knew that I loved forestry but it wasn’t until my junior year of college that I decided to take the leap of faith and pursue what I loved,” she said, “and it was then that I started working with the N.C. Forest Service as an intern, doing research and making connections.” Upon graduation, Gail worked for Bladen Lakes State Forest for a short time before coming on staff at the N.C. Forest Service, where she remains to this day.
Gail has served in many roles throughout her time with the forest service and is currently serving as Fire Chief where she is involved in a variety of tasks throughout the year, including emergency response and management.
“I have seven people that I supervise and work with on various projects across the state,” she said, “no matter what I am doing, I try to bring my best to the job. I knew this position would challenge me and help me grow in my career. I hope that it inspires other women and men to do the same and further the future of this industry.”
Although wildfires are an annual problem, this year has been especially challenging with the fires and weather disasters in the western part of our state as well as other states like Texas and California. “On average, our state experiences anywhere from 3,600 to 4,000 wildfires each year,” Gail said, “not only do we handle wildfires here in the states but we also dispatch employees to help in other areas, including California.” Employees are also dispatched to assist with natural disaster damage, such as hurricanes and tropical storms. “These events don’t change what we do, just how we do them,” she said, “meaning that we have longer days, more people on the clock and distribute more supplies.”
Wildfires are more prevalent in North Carolina during the spring and fall. In fact, we are getting ready to enter fall wildfire season, so individuals and communities alike should be ready to play their part in preventing these fires from occurring. “Each area of the country is different when it comes to experiencing wildfires, but the main factors are weather, drought, leaves, the fuels in each area and, of course, human error,” Gail said, “but the fall leaves tend to contribute to more fires because they provide kindling at a time when humidity is low and weather conditions right for a fire to spread.” Most forest service response calls come from 911 dispatches in each county or, during high-risk months/seasons, scout planes that are used to watch fire prone areas for outbreaks. According to Gail, as soon as forest rangers receive the call they drop everything else and respond. “Sometimes they are given a direct address and other times they are given a general area,” she said, “but they call to check in when they arrive and also let us know when the situation has been handled and the fire extinguished.”
As we head into fall fire season, Gail reminds people and communities alike to be mindful of their actions and do their part to prevent these wildfires from happening. “There are a variety of things that people can do to protect our forests and state land, including utilizing proper burn safety, cleaning up debris, landscaping around the home and utilizing proper safety techniques when handling cigarettes and matches,” she said, “however, one thing to remember is that, while it is important to do our part as individuals, it is also a community wide effort to look after one another and protect the state as a whole.”
Although Gail enjoys many aspects of her role as Fire Chief, her favorite thing is experiencing and celebrating the achievements of forest service staff across the state. “We get handed a lot of projects throughout the year that help farmers and other individuals in all areas of the state,” she said, “we touch a lot of things and overcome a lot of challenges. Being a part of that movement that is making a difference makes me incredibly proud of the work that we are doing and the passion for forestry that shines through every member of our team.” Their passion and achievements can be seen throughout the year on various news outlets, the N.C. Forest Service Facebook page, the NCDA&CS Facebook page and this year at the N.C. State Fair in their brand new and permanent forestry building. The building will be a showcase and celebration of North Carolina’s forest sector. The exterior siding and interior paneling are being made from North Carolina trees, significant native species from across the state. This building is an opportunity for all to learn about and celebrate the trees that improve our quality of life now and in the future.
In the future, Gail will continue to streamline forestry efforts, making it easier on her employees to accomplish routine tasks, and leave a positive impact on the industry, the state and those within it. “I have been in this position since February of 2017 and I still learn something new everyday,” she said, “I take things one day at a time and prioritize to get the most important things done quickly, but my biggest goal is to always leave things better than I found them and continue to make a difference, one task at a time.”
When she is not working, you can find Gail enjoying the beauty and peace of our state forests, specifically Bladen Lakes State Forest, which will always hold a special place in her heart.