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Montana. Colorado. Texas. California. In all those hotbox states and more, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Services are sweating to control fires that have already burned more than five million acres of land and wrecked thousands of homes and businesses.
Nationwide, says Monte Mitchell, Forest Service state fire supervisor, we’re part of a “dynamic system where when one geographic area has shortages, other states and federal units can provide those resources to fill in the gaps.”
One hundred and twenty Maryland Forest Service firefighters and other volunteers train to fight those ferocious opponents. These “red-carded personnel are nationally certified to perform on an incident,” Mitchell says. “Forty-hour courses give them their basic firefighter and basic wildland and fire weather training and tactics.”
Topping that is an eight-hour physical field day.
“They go out and construct fire lines with hand tools, they’ll use pumps, they’ll set up hose lays, they’ll be introduced to all the different tools that you use in wildland firefighting,” Mitchell says.
Through all this, their most important tools are their bodies.
“There is a physical assessment that you have to meet, and that’s more of an exam,” says Justin Arseneault, project forester with the forest service. “Every year before firefighters get sent out, we take a work capacity test to make sure that our physical fitness is sufficient to handle the types of duties that we might be called to do.”
Part of the test is walking three miles within 45 minutes while carrying 45 pounds.
In Maryland, each crew of 20 people is divided into three squads under a crew boss. Each squad has its boss, three fellers who operate chainsaws and the rest firefighters, Mitchell explains.
Once in action, volunteers must be ready for whatever is to come in the 14 to 16 days of assignment.
“Initial attack is responding to new wildfires as they occur and for the first 24-hour operational period taking the necessary actions to contain and suppress the wildfire,” Mitchell says. “All of the engine and dozer crews Maryland has mobilized are experienced firefighters. But newly trained firefighters can assist with initial attack operations under the supervision of experienced firefighters.”
Once a fire is fought down, “we’ll make sure that portions controlled but still smoldering are fully extinguished so that they don’t accidentally escape containment,” Arseneault says.
Maryland volunteers also might work on smaller active fires, “to cut fire lines, brushing out a path where there’s no fuel for the fire to run into so it will extinguish itself.”
In July Arseneault was sent to Montana, California and Colorado. This month he heads to Texas to help with more fires.
“It’s a dangerous environment, and we take every precaution that we can to mitigate the hazards that are there,” Arseneault says.
“There are a lot of fires, like the fires in California, where homes are being threatened, and it can be very humbling to help. Being exposed to those people that are just so grateful that you’re there really makes you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile.”