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Kentucky firefighters lend a helping hand across the US

By Jennifer Turner

Division of Forestry

2016 is turning out to be a very busy year for the Kentucky Division of Forestry (KDF) as they continue to answer the call to help other states with wildland fires.

The division currently has two Type 2 Initial Attack interagency fire crews fighting fires. These men and women are the first on site and the first to respond. The crews are a diverse team of career and temporary agency employees with well-earned reputations as multi-skilled professional firefighters.

With 18 – 20 men and women that serve as the infantry of wildland fire forces, the crews’ main responsibilities are to construct a “fireline” – or a strip of land cleared of flammable materials down to mineral soil – around wildfires to control them, burn out fire areas and mop up after the fire.

“We are up to four deployments this year. We respond whenever we have a request,” said Bill Steele the director of Forestry.  “We want every one of our firefighters to have the opportunity to get out there, help and train.”

Crews are currently in Idaho City, Idaho, and near Thompson Falls, Montana. In April of four people and two Type 6 engines was dispatched to assist the state of Oklahoma. At the same time, a Type 2 Intial Attack crew was sent to New Mexico.

Firefighter Brandon Howard was one of the crew members dispatched to New Mexico. “We were the Initial Attack crew. Our purpose was to fill any voids and to assist,” Howard said. “We were actually on standby or hiking deep into the canyons of New Mexico. We would pack water, sleeping gear and enough food for 36 hours. Once we got to our destination we camped out at our station for four days and worked and got a little sleep.”

A crew’s day generally starts at sunrise as they grab their hand tools (chainsaws, pulaskis and shovels) for working the fireline. Handcrews may spend 12 hours or more digging line.

Each firefighter volunteers to travel to other states, taking vacation or comp time to help others. Their time out of Kentucky is paid by the U.S. Forest Service and is based off of their years of experience and the particular job they will be performing.

There are 5 levels or types of crews: Type I Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC), Type 1, Type 2-Initial Attack (IA), Type 2, and Type 3. The type of crew is determined by the amount of skill and training the members have. The IHC crews are professional wildland firefighters with the most skill and training.

Wildland firefighters that are part of a 20-person interagency crew left on July 30th   to fight a fire in tall timber just north of Idaho City, Idaho.  About 1,480 people, 10 helicopters, 51 engines, eight dozers, 18 watertenders and six masticators are involved in this effort. The Kentucky crew will spend 14 days on the fire and then return home.

Another Kentucky crew of six full-time employees and 10 interim firefighters left for Thompson Falls, Montana, on Aug. 1 to fill out a 20-person interagency crew fighting the Copper King fire. That effort involves multiple pieces of heavy equipment, 12 engines and six helicopters.

Through an agreement with the Daniel Boone National Forest (U.S. Forest Service), KDF will provide a crew or portions of a crew for out of state fires. This is a voluntary service that requires employees to take leave from their state and the Forest Service pays them based on years of experience and the particular job they are doing.

These fires also provide what Steele calls “exceptional fire training.”

The experience, he said, gives forestry employees valuable experience fighting major fires and is an asset when this experience is needed in the Commonwealth.

“We are fortunate to have skilled wildland firefighters and equipment to share with other states,” Steele said. “Even though western fires are different from the fires here in Kentucky, this work will fine tune our skills for our fall fire season.”

Howard said he has been able to participate in 11 fire deployments since 2004. Asked if he would do it again, he said, “Absolutely.”

Crew listing

Crew listing of firefighter names and deployments

The mission of the Kentucky Division of Forestry (KDF) is “to protect, conserve and enhance the forest resources of the Commonwealth through a public informed of the environmental, social and economic importance of these resources.” As a means of meeting this mission, the division offers a variety of programs and services ranging from landowner assistance and master logger training to forest health protection and wildland fire management. The division is also involved in the operation of tree seedling nurseries, urban forestry assistance and forestry education.

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