Summer of Fire 2003--Life as a Pulaski Swinger--by Will Williams

August 8, 2003
Idaho-Montana border, 2000 hours

Meteorologists at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Montana have been watching the dry cold front materialize on satellite imagery all day long. High pressure clashes with low, cool Pacific air over the western side of the Rockies and spills over snowy peaks only to compress, heat up, dry out and gain gale-force momentum in the outflow of 40,000-foot cumulus thunderheads. Fuels, weather and topography combine with heat from lightning and oxygen from the wind, and the recipe for conflagration is complete.

That thing they swing-The Pulaski. A crew hikes into Oregon's Bull Fire, during the summer of 1996.As the dry storm cells crest the peaks of the Bitterroot, Flathead, Absoroka and Crazy Mountain Ranges, remote automated weather stations detect thousands of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes boring into tinder-dry Rocky Mountain forests cured by years of drought. Reports of "smokes" begin lighting up telephones in local National Forest Ranger Districts, whose local Initial Attack Crews are quickly overwhelmed as smoldering trees are fanned into acres of flame.

In another building on the NIFC campus, telephones begin ringing at the National Incident Coordination Center (NICC) as orders for fire crews, equipment and aircraft are relayed to Geographic Area Coordination Centers across the country. A national mobilization of wildfire resources is set into motion. Tested time and again, the Incident Command System (ICS) was created for days like these. Several hours later, telephones begin ringing in Maryland.

August 10, 2003
Madonna Forest Fire Center, Harford County, 0300 hours

The lights are on early in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Forest Service shop as members of the Maryland Wildland Fire Crew report in and gear up. Anticipation is high as belongings are packed into "red bags" - backpacks limited to 55 pounds of clothing, personal items and equipment-and each firefighter is weighed in, transformed from individual to team member. This morning, two 20-member crews assemble for a charter flight from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Dinner will be eaten in a fire camp in the Montana wilderness.

The road to interagency fires begins in early spring for the men and women of DNR's elite Wildland Fire Crew. After completing a federally required 40-hour wildland firefighting and safety course, potential crew members must then pass the "pack test" -a physical-stamina test that involves completing a 3-mile hike wearing a 45-pound pack in under 45 minutes.

"It's not for everybody," notes State Forester Steve Koehn, a former crew member himself. "The training is rigorous because the work is physically demanding and sometimes dangerous," he adds. "Firefighter safety is the number-one priority."

"Fire is a
faithful servant
and a harsh taskmaster."

Unknown

Survivors of the pack test are then invited to participate in a weekend-long simulated fire camp held at the Broad Creek Memorial Scout Camp in Harford County. Both recruits and old fire dogs are assigned to crews and practice digging fire lines, setting up portable water pumps, and even directing helicopter water-bucket drops with a flight crew from Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Upon completion of the fire camp, crew members are awarded their federal Incident Qualification Card, or "red card," their ticket to adventure.

As part of a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, DNR has been providing highly trained wildfire crews to incidents around the country for more than 20 years. Often staffed by supervisors from the Forest Service, teams include personnel from other DNR units, members of local fire departments, and staff from the Maryland Conservation Corps and Americorps crews.

"Many of our crew members have been on a number of fires together over the years; they're like family," says State Fire Supervisor Monte Mitchell. "You have to be if you're going to be together 24 hours a day for two weeks!"

August 10, 2003
Western Montana, 1900 hours

Will Williams at the Rough Draw Fire, Montana.After arriving in camp, the Maryland Wildland Fire Crew enters a world and subculture experienced only by a select few, with its own routines, hierarchy and even language. Along with the spectacle of the fire itself, the process of managing wildfires is a logistical wonder. Crews are assigned sleeping areas; caterers with tractor-trailer kitchens provide super-sized meals and hot showers; supply units offer everything from clean, fire-resistant Nomex clothing to chainsaws; and a small city rises where elk grazed the day before.

For all of its rustic comfort, Maryland's wildland firefighters do not get to spend much time hanging around in camp. "It's basically eat, sleep, fight fire and repeat, "notes Chuck Hecker, State Forest and Park Service Training Officer and one of Maryland's select crew bosses. "Sometimes we get so focused on our routine we forget what day it is and lose track of current events in the outside world, and we're exhausted."
A typical day begins around 4 a.m. for crew supervisors, who participate in a strategy briefing with incident managers to receive assignments for the operational period. Work assignments for the crew may include digging fire line; "gridding," or searching for smoldering hot spots and mopping up; creating a "hose lay" by setting up portable pumps in streams and stretching miles of hose; or "burning out" - fighting fire with fire by depriving the blaze of fuel.

August 11, 2003
On the fire line, 0700 hours.

For all of the infrared satellite imagery, fire-behavior modeling software and predictive weather products, it still takes men and women wielding hand tools to throw dirt and grub a line around a wildfire. The tool of choice for many "ground pounders, "as crews are called, is the Pulaski, named in honor of U.S. Forest Service fire hero Edward Pulaski, who in 1910 saved 42 firefighters from a firestorm by leading them into a deserted mining tunnel. The razor-sharp ax and hoe combination, along with chainsaws and shovels, help the 20 Maryland firefighters "punch line" in steep, rugged terrain like a machine.

The life of a Pulaski swinger is distinctly unglamorous, physically taxing, and conducted in an often beautiful but unforgiving environment of altitude, flame, smoke, dirt and heat. It can also be extremely dangerous with burned-through trees falling, rolling boulders and, of course, the unpredictable fire itself.

Why do they do it? The opportunity to travel, the thrill of the adventure, and the chance to challenge themselves, to help others, and to represent the State of Maryland are all cited as reasons by the men and women of DNR's Wildland Fire Crew.

Will Williams...
is and Education Specialist with DNR's Forest Service and is one of the crew bosses for the Maryland Wildland Fire Crew.  He started his firefighting career in the Yellowstone fires of 1988.  He can be reached at 410-414-5905 or wwilliams@dnr.state.md.us.

 


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