As residents flee, thousands of volunteer firefighters face grueling battle with southern US blazes

As residents flee, thousands of volunteer firefighters face grueling battle with southern US blazes

02 Deceember 2016

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USA — Wildfires have ravaged the southern United States this fall, lighting the region up day and night for weeks on end.

Most recently, one forced a town with 14,000 people to evacuate. Flames seemed to hold an unquenchable thirst for more fuel, thanks largely to widespread drought.

However, the fires were not met without opposition. Thousands of firefighters from across the country answered the call to help save the South not just on the front lines but also back in camps, supporting those out among the flames.

“It’s a very large, complex machine,” said Andy Lyon, a public information officer helping with the wildfire crisis in North Carolina. “In addition to the firefighters on the ground, you have a whole complex operation behind them.”

There are several hundred different positions needed to fight the fires, from safety officers to public information officers to everything in between. A database holds the names of thousands of firefighters from across the U.S. who volunteer to offer their services wherever they’re needed.

“There are supervisor positions, planning, logistics, finance positions, and then there’s commands, there’s positions under the command, liaison officers… Firefighter One and Two are just two of the field positions,” said Dave Martin, who is in charge of deputy operations for fire and aviation management at the southern regional officer of the National Forest Service.

Before anyone can become a wildland firefighter at any level, hours of basic training are needed, including a learning course and a fitness test. Lyon said the course includes the basics of wildland fires, safety and the three prime factors that affect a fire – fuels, topography and weather.

But no matter how much training firefighters go through, sometimes it isn’t enough to put fires out immediately. The largest concentration of fires has been in western North Carolina, northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee.

The South is experiencing one of the worst droughts in years, exacerbating the wildfire hazard. Through Monday, western North Carolina had yet to receive 10 percent of its normal rainfall for November.

“The drought has definitely been a driving factor,” Martin said. “We’ve got such a vast area of dry, receptive fuel beds.”

“Logs, branches, debris, that typically maintains a certain amount of moisture level, but it’s drying out as well, so it’s complicating a lot of things.”

“Leaves are still falling, so we have new fuel falling on top of our fire lines. Most of the time, the bottom layer holds moisture, but not this year,” Lyon said. “It historically has almost never been this dry at this time of year.”

As men and women on the front lines sometimes combat the fires throughout the night, base camps are essential in the larger areas. These camps are home to firefighters, providing a place for them to safely eat, shower and sleep.

“The most important part of camp is the food, ” Lyon said. “There’s a mobile kitchen here set up to feed hundreds.”

While there may be free food and a bed to sleep in at night, that’s not what keeps firefighters like Dave Martin coming back for more. Martin has been a firefighter for 27 years, and he said the best part of the job is the people he’s surrounded by.

“I’ve met some of the most dedicated, hardworking people in the business, just genuine people on the fire line,” Martin said. “That’s what I’ll remember the most.”

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