Local firefighters part of recently returned wildfire crew
A Delaware wildfire crew returned home late last week from its second assignment this year, fighting fires near Twin Falls, Idaho. The 20-person crew left on Sunday, Aug. 6, and spent most of its assignment battling the Minidoka Complex Fire southeast of Twin Falls.
After taking a bus to Harrisburg, Pa., and flying out to Idaho, Henry Poole, fire supervisor with the Delaware Forest Service, said they jumped right to work the first day.
“After we checked in, our first assignment, they wanted us to do a burn-out, which steers the fire away” from the direction it is headed, he explained. “That’s where the term ‘fighting fire with fire’ comes from.”
He said that, in doing so, they were responsible for saving four homes. After that, Poole said, they got to see a “gigantic air tanker” drop retardant. “It’s kind of unusual to see a plane that big,” he said. “It’s actually a jet. I looked up and was like, ‘Wow!’ And we got to see its drop. And that’s what we did on the first day!”
He said they spent the next couple of days prepping fire lines, removing brush from the main fire line — which consists of manual labor, including cutting brush with chain saws and hand tools, lest anyone think they are out there simply spraying water on trees.
“Water is a luxury in the Western United States,” said Poole. “Engines were there, and we did have the opportunity to spray, but sometimes the areas are so remote they can’t get out there or can but then can’t come back once they are used.”
Other jobs include “mopping up,” which is going back and checking for hotspots in the soil to make sure nothing has the potential to re-ignite, and “holding,” which is watching an area for a crew that is doing a “burn out,” to make sure the fire is not getting ahead of the main fire line.
“It’s pretty dangerous if the fire is below you,” he said. “It can go uphill very quickly.”
Poole said he did get a chance to work with a “helicopter bucket drop,” in which they concentrated on getting under control an area that had heat.
Poole explained that a lot of the work that the foresters and volunteer firefighters do is manual labor, and sometimes mentally draining, and it takes a strong person — both mentally and physically — to do the jobs with which they are tasked.
“One day you might be standing there, watching the green,” he said of the area that is not burning, “looking for any embers that might start burning, for 15 hours straight — which is extremely important. And then other times you are choking on smoke and your eyes are watering because you are so close to it. It takes a strong person, mentally and physically… My hat’s off to everybody that comes out with us.”
He also said it “takes a special person,” to do the job, because the 14 days on assignment are 15- or 16-hour days filled with tiresome work.
“It’s not like you can clock out and go watch TV at night,” he said. “You are out there sleeping in a tent, or under the stars… It’s not for everybody.”
He noted that, while there were seven Delaware Forest Service employees who went on the assignment to Idaho, much of the rest of the crew was made up of firefighters from local volunteer fire companies — people with lives and jobs back home in Delaware. They came from all over the state, from Townsend to Millsboro to Frankford to Wilmington.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, even though the National Fire Preparedness Level remained at 3 on a 5-point scale this week, there were 44 large uncontained fires nationwide.
All fire crew members must hold current “red-card” certification from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), which involves completion of a set of core training courses and attendance at the DFS’ annual “Fire Camp” live-burn training session, as well as a strenuous work-capacity test in which participants must carry a 45-pound pack over a 3-mile course in less than 45 minutes.
Poole said that, now that the crew is back, he will get set on organizing training for next January’s classes. He said they also work in conjunction with the Delaware State Fire School to offer training for the basic classes. There is also a fire academy in New York state that he said volunteers can attend.
Poole said he appreciates all the work that the volunteers do, from training to actually fighting the fires and stepping up for leadership positions. He said they are always looking for good people, “especially in bad fire seasons like this.”
“Like they say, ‘It’s hard to plow your own field when your neighbor’s house is burning down.’ And, most of the people, they do it because the like to help,” he concluded. “When you are out there, the locals know you are the guys with the yellow shirts on and the green pants, and they will say, ‘Thank you,’ and that is a good feeling.”