Georgia firefighters join with Texas Forest Service to save Archer County town  

Georgia firefighters join with Texas Forest Service to save Archer County town

10 April 2009

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USA — The acrid and choking black smoke hung heavy in the air, a visible reminder that the county was surrounded.
The fires were everywhere. Volunteer firefighters were battling a major blaze on every county border.

Archer County Judge Gary Beesinger said he knew the situation was increasing in intensity when he heard volunteer firefighters from neighboring departments talking to each other on the radio.

One firefighter asked for help. Another, his voice strained but calm, responded: “I can’t come. I’m trying to save my own house.”

Roughly 25,000 acres were burned Friday in Archer County, Beesinger estimated, adding that no one was hurt and no homes were lost. The outlook likely would have been much bleaker, he said, had it not been for help from Texas Forest Service and Georgia Forestry Commission crews assigned to the blaze.

“If it hadn’t been for them, we would have been in a world of hurt,” Beesinger said Friday, noting that he stopped and thanked the Georgia crews when he saw them that morning as they were gassing up and getting ready to move on to the next fire. “I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t been here.”

Nearly two dozen wildfires ravaged more than 100,000 acres in North and West Texas on Friday and Saturday, burning up two towns and killing at least three people. The devastating blazes maxed out Texas Forest Service resources, prompting the state agency to call for help from both in- and out-of-state emergency responders.

Included in the response was a team from the Georgia Forestry Commission. The crew learned of the massive blazes while already was en route to Texas to replace other Georgia teams that were heading home.

David Abernathy, assistant chief regional fire coordinator for Texas Forest Service, said the group immediately was diverted to Archer County, where the 445-person town of Scotland was in danger of being enveloped by fire.

The crew split into teams and at least one group headed to Scotland, Abernathy said, explaining that the wildland firefighters used their bull dozers to create a much-needed fire break around the community.

“They operate and have pretty well the same philosophy we have here in Texas,” Abernathy said, praising the help as he noted that Texas Forest Service has similar cooperative relationships with all southern state forestry agencies. “We just got along splendidly. Other than our accents, you couldn’t tell who was working for what agency.”

After working through the night to help get the fire under control, the Georgia team headed Saturday to another fire in Albany, Texas.

Alan Dozier, chief of forest protection with Georgia Forestry Commission, said the state agency provides mutual aid through the Southeastern Forest Fire Compact. Though many states are involved, he said, Georgia and Texas seem to have established a particularly close relationship. 
Texas Forest Service provided Georgia with incident management teams in 2007 when the state experienced the largest wildfire in southern history — a half-million acre fire in the Okefenokee Swamp. And Georgia returned the favor a year later when Texas experienced a devastating wildfire season.

Dozier said he was pleased his team had helped save the town of Scotland.

“That’s the kind of thing we do. Our Georgia firefighters are really tough and they’re well trained and I don’t want to brag, but it’s just not uncommon,” Dozier said, noting that Texas and Georgia firefighters were of the same caliber. “Our folks just seem to keep showing up and doing good things. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re firefighters. What do you do if you don’t go save a town?”

Beesinger said Saturday that Archer County volunteer firefighters were continuing to monitor hot spots to ensure the fire — which had crept within a quarter-mile of the town — didn’t re-ignite.

Because winds had shifted so suddenly on Friday, there hadn’t even been time to evacuate the small community being directly threatened by the wildfire, he said.

The judge toured the county Saturday morning and said he was amazed to see the scorched, black grass lead right up to so many homes and then just stop.

“I don’t want to use the word lucky because our good luck was the county to the east of us’ bad luck. Homes were destroyed less than five miles outside our county lines,” Beesinger said, pointing to nearby Sunset and Stoneburg, towns that were completely engulfed by Friday’s wildfires.
“I hate to think of where we’d be if [the crews from Texas Forest Service and Georgia Forestry Commission] hadn’t been there to help us out.”

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