August 8, 2003
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.
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."
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!"
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."
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.