Local firefighters get taste of wild(fire) West
Part of a Massachusetts crew just returned from Montana
Firefigther Jesse Hanecak took this photo of this crew of 10 members of the Massachusetts team of firefighters who dealt with the Allen Creek fire just outside of Missoula, Mont.
Massachusetts firefighters George Nolette IV of North Brookfield and Bruce Forgeo of Winsor take down trees to contain a fire in Lolo National Forest. They were part of team from Massachusetts that also included three Franklin County residents.
Walker Korby, Jesse Hanecak and Daniel Thayer just got back from 21 days in the Lolo National Forest in west-central Montana.
But their stay was anything but a vacation.
The three Franklin County firefighters were part of a 20-member team that the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation sent to Montana on Aug. 16, to battle wildfires sparked by hot and dry weather and scattered “dry” thunderstorms that produced hundreds of lightning strikes in the region.
“This trip was unique,” said Korby, a Montague Center firefighter. “We were on what’s called the initial attack team. ... We were on duty every day.”
“Things were great, it went really well,” said Korby, who has been fighting wildfires for about a dozen years. He is also a former firefighter in the Colrain and Erving fire departments and has been on seven wildfire assignments in western states and Alaska.
“We spent a couple days waiting around at headquarters, then we were off, gone for two or three days, camping in mountains. Every now and then they’d give us a helicopter ride to a site.
Rather than hike down the mountain and trek back to town, it was more efficient to camp out. If we were out for a short time, we were eating military MREs (meals-ready-to-eat),” he said. “Once we got established somewhere, they’d send lunches up, which was nice.”
“When things were quiet, they put us up in local hotels. We’d go from pillow-topped mattresses one night to rocks and roots the next. Several nights, we had to move rocks around until it was actually flat enough for a tent.”
“A lot of the time, we were working with helicopters, as far as water supply,” said Korby. “Otherwise, we were using hand tools. They had helicopters flying around, we would direct them as to where they should dump their water. Usually the aircraft got there before anyone else, (and) knocked down lots of the big flames. They don’t send us up when there are roaring flames,” he said. “It’s different than it looks on TV.”
“My first trip was 10 years ago, in the Tally Lakes District of Montana,” Korby recalled. “We lost a fella’ in our crew. He died of heart complications. Wayne Mickle. It’s weird being out here for the anniversary of his death. We didn’t get a chance to go to that side of the area, though.”
Since 1985, the state DCR has been sending one or more teams of trained crews on federal assignments to fight wildfires in other states, says DCR Chief Fire Warden Dave Celino, who lives in Franklin County and is a former Colrain fire chief.
“Almost every year, we’ve sent anywhere from one to three crews in a season,” said Celino. “This year was no different.”
Celino said a crew was sent to Quebec in July, where wildland fires had burned up 2 million acres across the province. “They just got back from Quebec when the (Montana) assignment came in — within a week.”
Celino said the crew that DCR sent to Montana was a “Type 2 Initial Attack Hand Crew.”
“These are ground-pounding firefighters that are qualified to do initial attack at the start of the fire. They are very experienced, and are able to divide themselves in mulitple groups, to get these fires out while they’re small — to prevent them from turning into large wildland fires. He said the “little” fires that the Massachusetts crew was putting out ranged from a quarter-acre to 10 acres.
“That is indeed when you need experienced firefighters with good leadership and initiative skills, to get around these fires, when they really start to rock ’n’ roll,” said Celino. “It’s a young man’s and a young woman’s game. Our wildland firefighters range in age from their early 20s to a few anomalies in their late 40s, early 50s, in that crew.”
“Firefighter safety demands that our crew members maintain good physical condition,” he added. “To get their red card certification, they have to pass a fitness test. It includes a three-mile hike with a 45-pound backpack, and to do it in under 45 minutes.”
“Lolo is very steep, rugged terrain,” Celino explained. “It’s hot and dry, high elevations. These are conditions that absolutely stresses the bodily function of firefighters from eastern states, at sea level.”
Through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Fire Service, each state sending firefighters is reimbursed for all personnel time and their cost of travel. In return, federal funding helps the states pay for the kind of training that brings local firefighters up to national standards.
Jess Hanecak of Whately saw his father go off to fight wildfires and started going with him at about the age of 14.
“My dad was the fire warden for District 10 in Hampshire County and I sort of followed in his footsteps, said Hanecak. “I went with my dad to a lot of fires, and watched and learned.”
Hanecak said he started fighting wildfires for DCR in 2005.
“We were part of two 10-man modules from Massachusetts,” he said. “We put out about a dozen fires around Missoula, Mont.”
“Every time there was a lightning strike, we would go to cut a fire line to contain it and eventually mop up the fire — which means it’s 100 percent out,” he explained.
When asked if he’s on a town fire department, Hanecak says “I’m more of a wildfire guy. I like being out in the woods. There are places that we go, fighting fires, that I know no one has ever seen before — or may never see again.”
“It was quite an experience,” said David Thayer of New Salem, “I’ve never done a western (wildfire) deployment before. There were things you’d never see on the East Coast.”
Thayer said the high elevation is one difference. “Missoula was about 3,200 feet (in altitude) and we were going up to 6,000 feet, taking a helicopter to work on some days, having our food dropped by helicopter.”
“It was a pretty incredible change from what you’d see here on the East Coast.” One night Thayer’s group was dropped off by helicopter on a hillside, “late enough where we couldn’t see our surroundings. We did what we needed to do on the fire, then coyote-camped a couple hundred yards from the fireline. When I woke up, the view was incredible.”
A fireline is a clearing of potential fuel outside of the burning area, to prevent the fire from spreading. Thayer explained that “coyote camping” meant that someone stayed up to watch that the fire didn’t spread, while the others slept.
Thayer is a firefighter with the New Salem Fire Department.
When asked if he’d go to another fire call in the Rockies, he said: “If they called me again, I would go in a heartbeat. I would do it again.”