When he’s working a fire line high in the mountains of southwest Oregon or any other location in the western U.S., Houston resident Robbie Smith knows his well-being lies in the hands of his co-workers.
“You’re dependent on one another,” Smith said. “They’re your eyes and you’re their eyes, and our job is to take care of each other and accomplish a task.”
Smith, 44, has been a professional firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service since 2011, and has fought large wildfires in several western states, spending several months deployed each year. He’s typically part a 20-man “hand crew” (made up of personnel from Missouri and Iowa) that assembles at a Mark Twain National Forest facility in Rolla and receives an assignment from officials at the main Forest Service headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M.
This year, Smith spent a total of 76 days (in stints of 44 and 32 days) fighting multiple large blazes in southwest Oregon, including the Klondike Fire and Taylor Creek Fire. He and his cohorts fight fires in river valleys, meadows and on mountainsides with specially-designed hand-held tools to “scratch a line” in the soil between the blaze and unscorched territory.
“When you learn the proper techniques, you can scrape a lot more dirt when you’re building a line,” Smith said.
The goal is most often to prepare an area for a “back burn,” a technique that uses fire to fight fire.
“We go in there and de-limb everything that’s about to be in the black,” Smith said. “That way the fire doesn’t have the capability of climbing, because out west, it’s just so dry that a small amount of heat is all it takes to ignite a pine tree, and then it’s going to turn into a Roman candle in a few seconds. We work hard to take away the ladder fuels, because it takes a lot more time and a lot more heat for the fire to climb up the bark.”
When “scratching a line,” firefighters must clear every tidbit of “duff” (sticks, leaves, etc.) and leave nothing but dirt.
“Otherwise, that fire is going to skunk through there and get to the green side where you don’t want it to be,” Smith said. “Sometimes there’s a lot of duff and we have to dig down a foot to get to clean dirt.”
Smith is a graduate of Houston High School. He and his wife, Amy, have an 11-year-old daughter named Nola.
Smith got his first taste of being a firefighter as a 16-year-old with the City of Houston Fire Department, and is now a lieutenant with that department as well as a training officer with the Houston Rural Fire Department. His firefighting certifications include Incident Commander Type 5 (ICT5), Firefighter Type 1 – Squad Boss (FFT1) and Helicopter Crew Member (HECM T).
When he’s out west, Smith and his hand crew buddies are part of huge response teams consisting of throngs of firefighters, dozens of fire engines, numerous aircraft (both helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes) and many other vehicles. Workers are both male and female and hail from states all over the nation. Local fire departments and even military units also participate.
“I’ve been on assignments where there were 3-or-4,000 firefighters at the same camp,” Smith said.
“There are all kinds of entities that help out.”
Firefighting aircraft are referred to as “ships.” Many that tend to the big western fires are owned by the Forest Service, but others are owned and operated by contract outfits from all over the U.S.
“It’s incredible to watch the ships operate,” Smith said. “It’s a rush to see a chopper dump a 1,000-gallon bucket of water on a fire, or a big fixed-wing ship ‘paint’ and area with fire retardant.”
When they head out into the field, hand crew workers bring enough food and water to last three days. They also pack extra clothing, two-way radios, spare leather gloves, batteries, ear protection, a Leatherman multi-tool and more.
“You always pack that way in case you get stuck in a position where you need to be self sufficient for a while,” Smith said. “Water can be very valuable.”
When giant flames are nearby and air around you is super-heated, your next move might be crucial to success – or even survival. Time goes by fast and adrenaline flows big-time.
“There’s a lot going on,” Smith said. “It’s almost like you’re constantly pivoting because of all the ‘watch out’ situations you’re surrounded by.”
Under the right circumstances, fire can move very quickly in any direction. Smith said conditions can sometimes change a blaze’s characteristics in the blink of an eye.
“You’re going to run into those situations,” he said. “Wind shifts, topography and relative humidity play a huge role and we all know anything could happen. But we also know where our safety zones are and how long it will take to get there.
“The No. 1 goal is to make it home or just get back to camp.”
Smith said it’s inevitable that some wildlife succumbs to the big fires.
“I’ve never seen animals go running by me because ‘here comes the fire,’” he said, “but I’ve seen the outcome of them getting caught in it. But animals do find safety; I truly think wildlife instinctively knows when it’s time to move out of an area, especially when they can see smoke rising nearby.”
While in Oregon this year, Smith and a firefighting friend from Kentucky – Chris Terry – witnessed a potentially horrific scene unfold on a steep mountainside.
“Our crew was working a line with a strike team of engines, and one of the sawyers went to cut a tree,” Smith said. “For whatever reason, the tree came back on him and struck him in the head and shoulder, and it sent him down the mountain. It also caused his chainsaw to come back to his chest, and I thought for the first time that we had lost a firefighter right in front of me.”
Fortunately, the impact forced the sawyer’s hand forward, and it hit the chainsaw’s brake. But the man tumbled down the steep slope.
“Chris and I were quite close and ran down the mountain after him,” Smith said. “He finally hit a tree and that’s when we were able to catch up to him and start working on him.”
Personnel in the area fashioned a stretcher out of wood and the man was taken to safety. He broke his neck and back, Smith said, but is still alive.
“He isn’t paralyzed,” Smith said. “He’s able to walk, but he won’t be fighting any more fires.”
The man was delivered to safety only 24 minutes after being hit by the tree.
“Everyone on that strike team working together in a timely manner really helped make the situation end better than it could have,” Smith said.
So why would someone want to fight a big wildfire in another state?
“You can’t stand back and let these fires just take their course,” Smith said. “There are already lots of lives being lost and lots of towns being damaged or destroyed. A lot of us feel like we have to do something to help out.
“Because of urban growth, we’re going to continue to see it in even bigger and bigger ways as these towns expand into more wooded areas. But even though we’re putting ourselves in that environment, we can’t just let nature take its course. We have to put up a defense.”
Smith said most people don’t fully appreciate what the Forest Service accomplishes during “fire season” out west.
“They just don’t realize how much the Forest Service does with the resources they have available,” he said. “But I’ve seen enough that I really give them kudos for the job that gets done.”
Smith said that while he enjoys fighting big wildfires out west, he isn’t exactly obsessed with flames.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a fire junkie,” he said, “but I really like the camaraderie. When you’re on the hand crew there are 19 other individuals who are doing the same thing you are, it’s a great feeling.”
“It’s almost like you’re constantly pivoting because of all the ‘watch out’ situations you’re surrounded by.”