Leaving Kentucky to help extinguish wildfires in the western United States is something I have done several times. While doing so is never an easy transition, strangely enough, I look forward to it every time I am called.
Last summer was no different. Within hours of getting the call, I goodbye to family and friends and loaded up my gear to fly across the country and spend a few weeks at a smoke-filled mountain range with fellow wildland firefighters from around the country.
I never know what to expect. Assignments range from extinguishing the slightest amount of heat on a lightly smoldering log to ordering helicopter water bucket drops to buy time while getting that last section of handline tied in.
This year I served as Captain on a Type 6 Fire Engine, or “brush truck,” at a wildfire in eastern Idaho. Among the first engines on scene, we began with assessing nearby homes and determining what resources would be required to defend them in the event the fire came over the ridge. By the end of day one our engine moved closer to the fire to seek and destroy threatening spot fires. We also ordered bucket drops and briefed those arriving to the scene.
The heavy action died down over the course of a few days after the aircraft painted a couple of ridges with retardant and hand crews completed and plumbed the handline. Even then there was still a potential for the fire to make another run with high winds and temperatures present and predicted. Fortunately, after a couple of weeks only a 1,000-acre black scar remained. No structures were lost and none of our firefighters sustained major injuries. Closure orders and evacuations were lifted. We claimed success.
I am not the only staff from The Nature Conservancy to fulfill this role. My colleagues from around the country assist federal agencies with prescribed burning and suppressing wildfires—out west and in their own states—year round. In fact, the Conservancy works so closely with our federal partners that the burn training standards and qualifications are identical, allowing for reciprocity. This is highly important when the time comes to pool resources in the case of wildfires that get out of control.
While hard work, helping in this way every summer provides an opportunity to interact with folks from around the country. It is rewarding to be part of a team of several hundred people joining forces to meet a common goal while looking out for each other.
This work also expands skills that I bring back to Kentucky where we work with partners like the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Kentucky State Nature Preserve Commission and the Daniel Boone National Forest with prescribed burning and wildfire suppression. In fact, in 2016, our staff has already led or directly assisted with nearly 5,000 acres of prescribed burns in Kentucky!
Without a doubt, wildfire assignments are becoming more common with each year—here in Kentucky and around the country. I am proud to be part of the Conservancy’s highly trained burn staff—ready to lend a hand when needed.
Chris Minor is The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Land Management in Kentucky. Support his efforts to employ fire and other conservation tools to benefit nature in Kentucky.