N.C. Forest Service emergency response capabilities go beyond just wildfire

by | Feb 10, 2023

The N.C. Forest Service is known for promoting, managing and protecting forest resources for the citizens of North Carolina. This mission is carried out through a variety of programs and services that many are familiar with such as forest health, financial assistance, nursery and tree improvement, education and outreach and water quality. Most notably, the N.C. Forest Service is known for its role in emergency response, predominantly as the lead agency for the prevention and control of wildfires. However, our response goes far beyond the parameters of fire.

A hand crew with the N.C. Forest Service hikes up steep terrain in response to a wildfire.

The North Carolina Emergency Management Act designates the N.C. Forest Service as an emergency response agency to respond to all-risk incidents. As such, staff are trained in the Incident Command System (ICS) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to provide a standardized, yet flexible approach to any emergency. The forest service applies this training to counter a wide variety of all-risk incidents such as winter storm events, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, search and rescue efforts, public health events and agricultural emergencies.

Depending on where you live, travel or choose to spend your vacation, emergency response to natural and human-caused disasters may look a little different. For example, you probably won’t see an avalanche in Florida, or a tsunami in Kansas, or an erupting volcano in Oklahoma. Influenced by elements such as location, climate and weather patterns, geographical landscape and population, training for all-hazard emergency response varies. For North Carolina, one of the more frequent emergencies requiring attention is wildfires.

In 2022, the N.C. Forest Service responded to nearly 6,400 wildfires that scorched more than 27,000 acres. Equipped with hand crews, fire engines, dozers, tractor-plows, fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, pumps and other resources, the N.C. Forest Service aggressively suppresses wildfires across the state’s diverse forest ecosystems, wide-ranging terrain and extensive wildland urban interface. For larger, more severe wildfires such as the Grindstone Fire at Pilot Mountain, Ferebee Road Fire, Juniper Road Two Fire and Jackson Road Fire, the N.C. Forest Service has the ability to assemble an Incident Management Team (IMT) to oversee and manage the flame. The size of the IMT can expand or contract as necessary to meet the needs of the incident.

With the winding Appalachian Mountains to the west and the waves of the Atlantic Ocean joining the Coastal Plain to the east, North Carolina exhibits significant regional variations that are notorious for bearing winter storms and hurricane activity. The N.C. Forest Service is proactive about providing guidance and recommendations for citizens on how to not only protect themselves, but how to also protect trees and property before, during and after storm events.

Greg Hicks, assistant state forester for forest protection with the N.C. Forest Service.

“Our staff are highly trained to respond to weather events and provide a variety of services during times of need,” said Greg Hicks, assistant state forester for forest protection with the N.C. Forest Service.

“We provide boots-on-the-ground in the form of receiving goods such as water, supplies and resources for community distribution.”

The N.C. Forest Service will assemble personnel units from counties outside the impacted area to provide specialized services such as chainsaw operations. In the photo above, an NCFS staff member assists with the cleanup of a downed tree following a storm event.

When it comes to downed debris and storm damaged trees, the N.C. Forest Service will assemble personnel units from counties outside the impacted area to provide specialized heavy equipment services such as forklifts, skid steers and chainsaw operations.

Beyond ground forces, forest service staff may plug into local and state emergency operation centers to assist with the capacity that large-scale response operations demand.

“Unlike a wildfire incident where we are the lead agency, our staff are also trained to serve in several different positions within an IMT where we are filling a support role,” Hicks said.

“Our county rangers may be called in by local emergency management to help organize an incident and fulfill an IMT responsibility such as planning chief, operations chief or logistics chief.”

In the same capacity, the N.C. Forest Service will also assist with search and rescue efforts, or ground wilderness rescues, to help locate lost hikers and other recreation mishaps.

Fallen and damaged trees following a winter storm event.

Whether it’s a large-scale incident requiring outside and partner resources, or a smaller spectrum being handled on a local level, the IMT configuration is a flexible system that can be applied to any incident. The N.C. Forest Service recognizes the importance of having as many staff members trained in the IMT structure as possible and invests countless hours into its training programs. This became even more evident during the coronavirus pandemic, where everyone found themselves reckoning with new and uncertain circumstances. Yet, because of the extensive training forest service staff receive, the agency was called upon to assist with operations such as vaccine distribution. While the N.C. Forest Service continues to run point on the prevention and control of wildfires, the priority of protecting and serving the citizens of North Carolina will always remain high.