By Robin Hartman
In July, wildfires ravaged tens of thousands of acres across Texas as the state faced record high temperatures and little rain. The Texas A&M Forest Service and local fire departments worked to suppress the fires, but as drought-like conditions persisted and a number of local firefighters became unavailable due to the coronavirus pandemic, they appealed for help.
Kentucky Division of Forestry firefighters responded. Twenty-three firefighters, three dozers and four engines deployed to the Longhorn State in July to help fill the gaps. Teams were deployed to Eastland, Lampasas, Sweetwater and Amarillo as first responders — with the understanding they could travel quickly if flames sprouted elsewhere.
COVID-19 added another layer of precaution for volunteers. “Local management was very aware of the threat and were very conscientious,” said Environmental Control Manager Seth Dykes, who recently returned from a 14-day assignment in Amarillo. Proactive steps were put in place to help protect fire resources. Once onsite, check-in procedures utilized technology and were conducted virtually, and daily briefings were either conducted in an open space or by telephone.
Dykes has been responding to state fire needs for 15 years, and served as a heavy equipment boss who worked with bulldozer operators from other states to remove dry vegetation to slow the fire’s spread.
“This wasn’t my first rodeo, but it’s different each time you deploy,” said Dykes. “You’re really just rolling the dice. It could be really busy, but you could also be in a waiting pattern.”
Each year, members of the agency’s wildland firefighter team volunteer to fight fires in various parts of the U.S., outside of Kentucky’s fire seasons, when wildfires overwhelm local resources. Crew members gain valuable experience and the state is reimbursed for the firefighters’ time.
“It’s a great opportunity to travel, and everyone benefits from the experience,” Dykes said. “I feel like I’ve helped out and accomplished something meaningful. It’s rewarding and I’ll continue to do it as long as I can.”
Conditions in Texas proved challenging for Kentucky firefighters, despite periods of rain that helped crews manage fires in Amarillo.
“Texas has so much country, and flames can spread quickly,” said Lem Johnson, who oversaw a 10-person hand crew from various states about four hours south of Amarillo. Hand crews work on foot with rakes and shovels to create fire lines, breaks in vegetation that act as a barrier to slow the progress of a bushfire or wildfire.
Case in point: Hand crews were called on August 2 to travel several hours to San Saba County to assist with a brush fire. Arriving at 7:30 p.m., the fire had grown exponentially. Firefighters worked through the night. Catching a few hours of sleep at a Boy Scout camp a few miles away, they slept in trucks or on the ground, and were quickly back on the fire the next morning. With dry conditions and high winds, the fire quickly spread to consume more than 9,800 acres.
Kristian Pickering, who served as an engine boss at the Texas Mays Fire, said the teams held up well. They first worked to protect threatened structures, starving the fire by creating dozer lines around the buildings. They then sprayed any remaining burning vegetation.
“Texas gets a lot of dry lightning that starts fires in the area, and weather patterns can be a lot different,” Pickering said. “Yesterday, part of the Mays Fire received rain, while the other portions didn’t.” Temperatures well above 100 degrees make the task more challenging.
Regardless, she said, crews remained positive. A new crew from Kentucky arrived Aug. 9 to provide relief.
Upon arriving home, these crew members will continue to put safety first and will voluntarily test for COVID-19 or quarantine for 14 days.
“I want to be cleared as quickly as possible so I might be available to help elsewhere,” Johnson said.
Accomplishing “Something Meaningful”
This is the third year in a row the Texas A&M Forest Service has requested assistance from the U.S. Forest Service and state forestry offices. Nick Dawson, assistant chief regional fire coordinator for the Texas A&M Forest Service’s Northwest Branch said the Kentucky team has been a huge asset.
“They’ve been super supportive and they’ve played a tremendous role in backing up our crews,” he said. “Texas has some rough terrain and the 10-person hand crews have been especially helpful… Their help has been very much needed and appreciated.”
Texas isn’t the only state reaping the benefits of Kentucky’s expertise. Two KDF employees who specialize in mixing and loading aircraft with a retardant that slows the spread of fire worked on an air tanker base in Wyoming. One employee assisted on an incident management team in the Northwest.
Division employees can choose to work toward national qualifications and may volunteer to travel out of state when needed. As tasks are completed and recorded in a national database, crew members gain qualification and can advance to different positions when deployed. The voluntary out-of-state deployment program has also allowed the firefighters to become a small community. Getting to know one another, they build relationships and stay in contact, sharing knowledge throughout the year.
“We support one another,” Johnson said. “And hopefully, if Kentucky ever needs help, they’ll return the favor.”