Wildfires in the United States and Canada have dominated news headlines for months. Several United States Forest Service (USFS) employees residing in Macon County and working in the Nantahala National Forest district have been tasked with assisting on various fires across the country.
Some local Lyndon B. Johnson Job Corps staff and students have been involved as well. In fact, Tyler Novak, Kelsey Mortensen, and Timothy Hawkins are just a few who recently returned from serving on wildland fires, and they shared their experiences with Macon Sense.
Novak, who is an employee with the USFS Lyndon B. Johnson Job Corps in Franklin, which offers a wildland firefighter program, assisted with a fire in Athol, Idaho. Each wildfire, like a hurricane, is given a name, and the Athol fire was dubbed the Ridge Creek Fire.
Novak, an Iraqi veteran trained as a National Park Service law enforcement officer and certified to fight wildland fires, received three days notice that he needed to temporarily leave his social services assistant position at Job Corps, to help fight the Idaho fire. Novak’s service suppressing the Idaho fire meant he would leave behind in Franklin his wife and two small children for two weeks.
“The first two days were more of an introduction to the fire and setting up the new ICP [Incident Command Point] camp,” he shared. “We had to set up signs, fueling points, supplies, and tents for the operating teams such as communications, finance, ground support, and more. When we first got there and were being briefed, the fire was just starting and was around 1,000 acres. Just a few days later, the fire escalated to approximately 3,000 acres with about 8% containment. The reason it was spreading quicky and not being contained well is that it was hard to get to the fire because of terrain. We had air resources that we were told used 270,000 gallons of water and 143,000 gallons of retardant. The weather did not help for the first week we were there. It was in the mid-90s and had reached to the low 100s. It was extremely dry. I had a bloody nose every day and was covered in dust. My ears and nose were black from every time I blew my nose.
“One of the wildest sights we had seen was on one of the forest service roads close to the fire,” said Novak. “It almost looked like it had snowed in the mountains the night before. All the bushes and pine trees were completely covered in the dust all the way from the top to the ground. Almost no greenery was able to be seen; that’s how thick it was. From being an infantryman deployed overseas to a federal law enforcement officer, this was one of the most intense, unpredictable things I’ve seen and witnessed in my life.”
To fight the fire, Novak explained that they had to dig handlines, which required removing trees, roots, and other types of fuels from the area. Another team set up behind the handline and used drip torches to burn off any other potential fuel residue.
“Even in areas not right on the firing line, you can feel the change in heat. We had lookouts that would watch the fire while we worked … they watched for changes in behavior of the fire and wind changes. One of the days while we were out there, we had a bad wind storm with around 50-80 mph winds. We could see the fire roaring. The sound was extremely loud and the wind and heat make it feel like you’re in literal hell.”
Novak noted that “a lot of moving parts” are involved in fighting a wildland fire. On site at the Ridge Creek Fire were 15 engines and 11 crews working 16 hours shifts every day for two weeks.
“When it comes to hard work, wildland firefighting is no joke and is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. We had about 428 personnel out at the ICP as well with constant change and rotations with people from all around the country. A lot of hands are in the mix and this was just one fire that was going on in the area at the time.”
According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, more than 80 percent of U.S.
wildfires are caused by people, but warmer temperatures and drier conditions will spread those fires and make them more difficult to extinguish. In 2018, Brian Browning of the USFS shared at the Macon County Public Library details about the unprecedented Western North Carolina and Tennessee fires in 2016 that occurred primarily within the months of October and November and burned thousands of acres and claimed homes and lives. Humans were blamed for starting many of the fires and fire fighters from more than 30 states assisted this region’s firefighters that year. Novak pointed out that humans were suspected of likely starting the Ridge Creek Fire.
Mortensen, a wilderness, trails, and volunteer coordinator at the Nantahala Ranger District in Franklin, began working for the USFS seasonally in 2015 and has been going out on fire assignments every year since in different capacities: hand crews, Type 6 Engines, and Security Specialist assignments. She was called to Bonners Ferry, Idaho, recently to help with “Initial Attack” on the Kaniksu National Forest. “Initial Attack is usually the first [group] on scene with the goal of getting eyes on the new fire, doing a size-up of the threats, and if possible, putting the fire out before it becomes a larger incident,” she said, sharing that in the past, she has assisted with wildland firefighting efforts in Montana, Oregon, and Arizona.
“Usually, you commit to 14 days on duty to the incident or district with a few days for travel on each end,” she said. “We drive our Type 6 engine out west in the summer and leave it out there for a few months, swapping out crews every 14 days. You may work up to 16-hour long days.
So, an incentive to go would be overtime hours and potential hazard pay if you perform hazardous duties while there. It’s also a great opportunity to work on a task book to further your knowledge of wildland fires and work on leadership skills and get experience fighting fire in different types of terrain and vegetation.” She added, “Many other people at our office went out on fires this year, some supporting our engine in Idaho and others on Incident Management Teams all over country. We have had resources out on fires this year for many months, starting with the Great Lakes fire on the Croatan National Forest that burned earlier this spring.”
Lyndon B. Johnson Job Corps Liaison specialist Keith Bowers shared in late September that since January, LBJ students have logged more than 4,000 hours either fighting wildland fires or supporting firefighters via camp crews.
He explained, “At LBJ, we have Forest Service Fire Management staff that provide training for both camp crews and wildland firefighting. Camp crew members (students) must complete two separate online training courses through FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], attend in-person instruction, and take part in physical fitness trainings. Camp crews provide logistical support on wildland fires. This could be setting up camps, cooking and serving meals, cleaning camps, filing paperwork, or making sure equipment is in good working order. In order to participate as a firefighter, students must complete online trainings with FEMA and the USFS, attend a 40-hour, in-person training program, take part in physical fitness trainings, and pass the Arduous Pack Test – three miles in 45 minutes carrying a 45-pound pack with no running allowed. Once all of these have been completed, they are awarded a ‘Red Card’ by the USFS, allowing them to participate in firefighting services.
“Assisting with fires is huge,” Bowers added. “It’s incredible to have some of our students and employees be able to go to fires around the country – lately in Idaho and Louisiana – to provide much needed help to crews from all over the United States. We have also had students participate in prescribed burns and fire suppression activities in both the Nantahala National Forest and the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest this year.”
Assisting on a camp crew at the Ridge Creek Fire in Idaho was Timothy Hawkins, Franklin resident and LBJ student. “Being a student at Job Corps gets me connections with the Forest Service and with getting a job in wildland firefighting, and participating in camp crews definitely helps,” said Hawkins. “On the Ridge Creek Fire, everyone worked together … seamlessly making sure that everything was accomplished. We were like a big family. I was working 14-16-hour days, sleeping in a tent on a pad. It was nice knowing that we were working to save communities, to make sure people’s houses didn’t get burned. For the future, I want to do wildland firefighting seasonally, and then welding as well, and my training at Job Corps will help me achieve these goals.”