Statistics show that 2015 is a big year for wildfires, and many big blazes have wreaked havoc in several western states.
Dealing with large wildfires is a complicated and sometimes daring venture and often stretches local resources well beyond their limit. In turn, qualified personnel from departments and agencies all over the U.S. are often called in to assist.
Firefighters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service are regularly involved in such national responses, including some from Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest (MTNF). This year, dozens of MTNF personnel have been deployed to wildfire “incidents” in other states, including nine who live in Houston.
Three of them recently returned from missions out west:
•Greg Painter, 39, assistant fire management officer. He was recently deployed for a stint Aug 18-Sept. 5 in the Idaho panhandle near Sandpoint to help with the “Grizzly Complex” fire (complex is a term used to describe fires with multiple sections). He was also sent to Minnesota earlier this summer. He began working with the Forest Service in 1998 and went full-time in 2002. His wife’s name is Sheena and they have one son.
•Mike Kelly, 36, zone fuels technician. He was deployed Aug. 3-25 to work on a complex in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Hyampom, Calif. (and went to Michigan in the spring). He began with the Forest Service since 2006. His wife’s name is Rachel, and they have three children.
•David Haberl, 27, timber sales preparation technician. He accompanied Painter to Idaho and went to Minnesota just after Painter returned. He has been with the Forest Service full-time for close to two years and began with the agency in 2006.
When a big fire incident occurs that requires lots of manpower, officials will reach out far and wide to create a team of firefighters with all the necessary qualifications (or “quals”). Qualifications pertain to aspects of fighting wildfire like heavy equipment operation and supervision, saw work, aircraft operation and maintenance and many others.
“As we work our way through our careers, we gain different qualifications,” Painter said. “On the larger incidents, they’ll determine which types of positions need to be filled and if they can’t find that specific ‘qual’ locally, they’ll look to the closest dispatch center. If they can’t find it there, they’ll look further out until they find it.
“They’ll pull from anywhere in the country if they need to.”
Qualification standards are set by the National Wildfire Coordination Group, which many agencies that contribute to the nationwide firefighter talent pool partner in (including the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and others). Many city and rural volunteer fire departments often join the fight against big incidents, too, through the Incident Command System (ICS).
“A lot of folks who drive the red trucks and put out house fires are qualified,” Kelly said. “They have a version of a qualification system, and we honor a lot of the training and expertise they have so they can come help us.”
This year has been above average with regard to destruction of acreage by fire, with more than 8.4 million acres being torched –– already close to 3 million more than the annual average over the past 10 years. MTNF Houston-Rolla-Cedar Creek District Ranger Kim Bittle (who oversees district operations out of the Houston ranger station) said the Forest Service was on its highest level of fire planning (level five) for longer than normal this summer – from mid-July to the end of August.
“When it’s at that level, that means if you’re available, you will be going somewhere,” Kelly said.
“There was often a problem meeting the need for resources,” Bittle said, “because they were committed elsewhere.”
Conversely, the total number of wildfires documented in 2015 has been below average. The usual number documented each year in the U.S. is about 56,000 (including everything from big complexes to campfires that spread a few yards from fire pits), while this year there were 44,080 through Sept. 3.
“There were fewer starts but more growth,” Haberl said.
Missouri’s “fire season” is in early spring, before trees bear leaves. When “green up” occurs and humidity rules the air, MTNF firefighters are more available for deployment.
When they’re not fighting an unwanted fire, MTNF firefighters spend their time performing many varied tasks.
“If we’re not having wildfires, we’re doing prescribed burns or setting up or planning for them,” Painter said. “We treat several thousand acres a year in Missouri with prescribed burns.”
When they are fighting a wildfire here in Missouri, local MTNF workers have one fire engine and two bulldozers in their arsenal. Missouri Department of Conservation personnel and equipment are sometimes called to assist, and an MTNF helicopter based in Rolla is available for aerial support.
Most of the work in fighting a wildfire isn’t about dousing flames with water, but preventing them from spreading. Bulldozers are crucial in creating barriers of dirt between the fire and adjacent trees or brush, called “fuel.”
“We try to put in a control line that excludes it from moving on to more fuels,” Painter said. “For that, you clean off roads and use dozers or hand crews to create lines down to mineral soil.”
Fire itself is often used to stop the progression of a large fire. The process of using a “backing fire” is referred to as a “burnout.”
“You light it off the edge of your line,” Painter said. “It’s of lower intensity, but it will clean out all the fuel ahead of the main fire, so when it reaches your control line it stops.”
Responders on big wildfires typically work two-week stints with 16-hour shifts. Danger is almost always nearby.
“When you have a 100-foot tree and 100-foot flames coming off of it,” Kelly said, “you need to be pretty far away to actually survive and do anything with it.”
“It sounds like a jet engine,” Haberl said. “And it’s the exact same principle –– it sucks in air and compresses it at the base of the tree and then ignites it and spits it out the top.”
When the intensity of a fire reaches a certain stage, keeping a distance is the only option, and simply spraying water on it doesn’t work.
“Sometimes you don’t have a lot of say in the matter,” Painter said. “When fire comes to town, it’s going to do what it wants to do. Sometimes you’re forced to go indirect, and sometimes you have to just wait for the right time of day to go after it. During the ‘burn window’ in the afternoon, fires are more active and there’s sometimes nothing you can do but wait.
“They might put air tankers up, but on the ground, you try to keep resources away from the really active stuff.”
Kelly said an intense fire can at times seem like a living entity.
“Fire has a mind of its own and does what it wants,” he said.
While Kelly was in California, a temperature inversion prevented smoke from escaping the area.
“We were in smoke consistently for 24 hours on 18 of the 21 days I was there,” he said.
Kelly said 2016 could resemble 2015 in terms of wildfire acreage destruction.
“The forecast I’ve seen is the western states are looking pretty sorry for snowpack development again this winter,” he said. “In those ecosystems, that stacks up year after year and if you don’t get the snowpack, the streams don’t flow and the trees start suffering and it’s a snowball effect.”
“Trees are like bodies,” Haberal said. “When the temperature gets warmer, they use more water. When you get really warm weather, trees expend a lot more water from their roots than they normally would, and they get drier faster.
“They don’t do well at all in the conditions that exist now out west.”
The Forest Service’s dispatch center in Missouri (the Missouri Coordination Center, or MOCC) has sent out about 120 people to fight fires in other states this year. MTNF firefighters have been deployed this year to at least seven states (including Montana, Oregon, Washington and Alaska), and Bittle said that as of last week, 47 of the MTNF’s 200 total employees were deployed in firefighting efforts.
She said the efforts of Forest Service firefighting personnel is an invaluable asset.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Bittle said. “They assist the Forest Service, protect the public, and they stay safe when they do their jobs. They know what they’re doing – they’re the experts and I’m proud of them for going out and supporting the overall effort.”
Painter said working the complex in Idaho was a challenge from the beginning.
“It was kind of a strange complex,” he said. “Normally when you get there, there’s a tremendous amount of resources, like all kinds of of engines and hand crews and other equipment. With this incident, most of the resources had already been scooped up by Washington and Oregon, and it was strange to be working on that size of an incident with the small number of resources we had.”
Painter and Haberl weren’t alone, but it felt like it for a while.
“The whole first week, we were the only engine on the fire,” Painter said, “and I think there were only two hand crews.”
“About 10,000 acres, and we were the only engine,” Haberl said.
“On the bigger fires you usually get assigned to a specific division and stay there for two weeks,” Painter said. “We were getting bounced around all over the place doing a whole variety of stuff.”
Normally, base camps set up at big incident sites feature tons of equipment and sometimes thousands of people.
“They’re usually like a small city once everything gets set up,” Haberl said.
Setting fire lines can require precise strategy, taking into consideration weather and other factors.
“Especially in the western states, time of day is a big factor,” Kelly said, “because of changing winds and even temperatures.”
“There are so many variables,” Painter said. “Every fire you go to is different.”
“You have to take lots of things into account,” Kelly said, “like the topography, weather parameters, structures and available fuel.”
Kelly said that in many locations, fuel is more available now than in the past.
“Diseases and bugs are killing a lot of forest,” he said, “and when that stuff sits and dries out, it can increase the intensity of wildfires. Sometimes our tactics involve just drawing a big box on a map and saying ‘we need to keep it inside these lines.’”
Fires aren’t the only incidents Forest Service firefighters respond to. Painter was deployed when Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast in 2012 and when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up and crashed in 2003. He also helped operate a refugee shelter in San Antonio, Texas, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, and responded to the Gulf Coast again in 2008 after Hurricane Ike paid a visit.
“We’re an all-risk agency,” Painter said, “and there’s always some major incident going on somewhere in the country.”
Painter said putting out fire too often has ironically helped create circumstances that help big fires thrive.
“Something a lot of people don’t realize is the natural role fire has in ecosystems,” he said. “For years it was always go out there and put it out because fire is bad and has no place out there. Fire have been so suppressed over the years that natural fire hasn’t been allowed to clean up all the understory and downed timber, so all that fuel that would have been burned is just been piling up.”
“You add drought on top of that,” Kelly said, “and you’re really in a position for fire.”
The growth of people living in forested areas has also contributed to the need for fighting wildfires – and made it more difficult at times, too.
“We’d be more than happy to let nature manage the forest on its own,” Painter said, “but with all these people living in the forest now you can’t just let it run its course. We have to do a lot of manage, like thinning out stands and doing prescribed burns to make the forest more resilient.”
(number of deployments this year in parentheses)
Troy Crowe (3)
Brian Emerson (1)
Dave Haberl (2)
Bob Horbyk (1)
Mike Kelly (2)
Victor Morales (2)
Trevor Ozier (2)
Greg Painter (2)
Brent Rahn (all summer)
“Sometimes you don’t have a lot of say in the matter. When fire comes to town, it’s going to do what it wants to do.”
– FOREST SERVICE FIREFIGHTER GREG PAINTER