‘If we inspire one kid, I feel we’ve done a good job’; N.C. Forest Service builds awareness through education

by | Feb 22, 2023

Famous American poet, novelist and playwright Alfred Mercier once said, “What we learn with pleasure, we never forget.” Education and outreach are a critical part of what the N.C. Forest Service does to promote forestry across the state. From wildfire prevention programs and career day events to county fairs, Envirothon and Future Farmers of America (FFA) events, our forest rangers partner with local school systems to promote forestry in North Carolina. School groups and civic organizations can also experience a variety of programming in any of our educational state forests. Our educational forest rangers can conduct programs compatible with the Department of Public Instruction’s science curriculum. While attending programs and events, students will be able to observe, and even participate in, demonstrations that cover all aspects of the forest environment from soil, water and wildlife to timber and forest management.

Sanford County Ranger Sam Buchanan talks about the various jobs he and his staff fulfill when called to the field.

Recently, a local school group participated in a tour of our Aviation Central facility located at Raleigh Executive Jetport in Sanford, North Carolina. Comprised of 120 students, parents and chaperones, they braved the fickle North Carolina weather consisting of wind gusts, overcast skies, periods of rain and finally some sunshine to receive an up-close look at the equipment and strategies applied by N.C. Forest Service personnel during wildfire suppression operations.

“Several good questions were asked by the kids and their parents,” said Lee County Ranger Sam Buchanan. “A lot of good information went out about the forest service, what we do and the resources we’re able to deploy during wildfire incidents.”

Patrol Pilot Philip Owens describes when a patrol plane is utilized and the types of things he looks for when flying the aircraft.

The tour was broken down into stations where visitors were able to view a Type 6 engine, lead plane, scout plane, single engine air tanker (SEAT) and helicopter that included a Bambi Bucket. They also had a chance to meet, speak with and learn from the N.C. Forest Service pilots and county rangers who operate these machines daily.

With the N.C. Forest Service having dedicated staff present in every county throughout the state, similar educational opportunities are available to the public year-round.

“We get requests that range anywhere from visiting schools to conduct Smoky Bear programs to groups wanting to come by the office to see the fire tower, Type 6 engine, hauling unit and bulldozer,” Buchanan added. “These events are a great way for us to meet with the public and get some wildfire prevention information out there.”

Aircraft Mechanic Doug McCumber explains how the N.C. Forest Service utilizes the Bambi Bucket during wildfire suppression.

Having a fire engine and aircraft present at the hangar, visitors saw what fire suppression tactics look like on the ground and how aviation provides support from the air.

“We gave them a broad overview of what fire suppression looks like on the ground,” said Zach Prevette, Sanford assistant county ranger. “We had the chainsaw out, I had some water in the tank and hose reel to show them how the water operations look and various hand tools we use when suppressing wildland fires.”

Like all good shows and programs, a grand finale was offered in the form of a water drop demonstration conducted by the lead plane and SEAT.

“The lead plane enters the area first and marks the target area with smoke while the air tanker trails by 20 to 30 seconds” said Assistant Chief Pilot David Masters. “After that the lead plane makes a turn, he’ll make the call and the air tanker will then make the drop.”

The crowd of more than a hundred stood from a safe distance and cheered as the SEAT dropped a water mass from a tank capable of holding more than 800 gallons before circling the jetport and disappearing off into the distance.

“If we inspire one kid, I feel we’ve done a good job,” Masters continued. “In a group this size you’re going to have one or two who are already thinking about an aviation career.”

David Masters, assistant chief pilot with the N.C. Forest Service preps the school group on what they can expect from the water drop demonstration.

The lead organizer for the school group in attendance, Jaimie Conlan, stated what a neat experience she thought this would be for the students and an opportunity to learn more about what the N.C. Forest Service does. According to Conlan, a few youngsters within the group have already shown interest in aviation.

“Overall, the entire operation is just really cool,” Conlan said. “Having the opportunity to just be here, meeting the pilots, seeing the planes and learning about them, I just thought it would be really cool to bring the group out.”

Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) Pilot Shane Caison conducts a water drop demonstration.

The N.C. Forest Service Aviation Program operates 22 aircraft, including 17 fixed wing airplanes and five helicopters. With three hubs located strategically throughout the state and prepositioning aircraft when fire danger is high, N.C. Forest Service pilots can respond anywhere in the state within an hour or less, providing aerial support for ground personnel battling wildfires.

Not all community engagement efforts are geared toward school age children and not all messaging refers to wildfire prevention. With about 83% of North Carolina’s 18 million acres of forestland being privately owned, ensuring this vital natural resource remains healthy and productive depends on careful, science-based forest management. Recent events such as the Southern Farm Show located in the state’s capital, allow North Carolina landowners to meet with staff from the N.C. Forest Service to access professional advice about managing their forest. The N.C. Forest Service focuses on delivering information directly to communities with the hope that these efforts will build awareness for the people of North Carolina so we can achieve the common goal of protecting our forest resources.

“I just enjoy the folks we meet, the questions they ask and just being able to talk with them,” said Buchanan.

To learn more about available educational programs and requesting N.C. Forest Service participation in outreach events, contact your NCFS county ranger’s office. Contact information is available at http://www.ncforestservice.gov/contacts.