Franklin County Hand Crew helps battle Williamstown forest fire

  • Turners Falls Fire Department firefighter Walker Korby leads an operational period objective and safety briefing near the site of a 270-acre forest fire in Williamstown. Courtesy photo/Turners Falls Fire Department

  • Members of the Franklin County Hand Crew responded over the weekend and on Monday to help contain a forest fire in northern Berkshire County that has burned about 800 acres since it started Friday. Courtesy photo/Turners Falls Fire Department

  • Members of the Franklin County Hand Crew responded to Williamstown over the weekend and on Monday to help contain a forest fire that has burned about 800 acres since it started Friday. Firefighters expect to continue their efforts for several more days. Courtesy photo/Colrain Firefighters’ Association

  • Members of the Franklin County Hand Crew responded to Williamstown over the weekend and on Monday to help contain a forest fire that has burned about 800 acres since it started Friday. Firefighters expect to continue their efforts for several more days. Courtesy photo/Colrain Firefighters’ Association

  • Members of the Franklin County Hand Crew responded over the weekend and on Monday to help contain a forest fire in northern Berkshire County that has burned about 800 acres since it started Friday. COURTESY PHOTO/GREENFIELD FIRE DEPARTMENT

Published: 5/16/2021 6:23:58 PM

WILLIAMSTOWN — Personnel from Franklin County were among the more than 120 firefighters that continued to battle a Berkshire County forest fire on Monday. The blaze in the Clarksburg State Forest has burned about 800 acres since it started Friday.

Aid from Franklin County came through the Franklin County Hand Crew, a roughly 75-member operation that specializes in providing assistance for large, difficult-to-contain forest fires like this with mostly hand tools, according to Erving Fire Chief Philip Wonkka. Wonkka and Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Strahan are the two local chiefs in charge of the Franklin County firefighters working in Williamstown.

Containing a large forest fire comes down to digging a line into the soil around the fire to prevent it from spreading, Wonkka explained.

“Unfortunately, that’s what a fire of this magnitude takes,” Wonkka said. “You’ve got to get people in the woods.”

Wonkka said the fire, being called the East Mountain Fire, is strictly in the woods and is not considered to be a threat to any homes or other structures. The fire’s cause is unknown.

According to a press release from the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services, the brush fire in the Clarksburg State Forest was about 75 percent contained as of Monday afternoon. The Massachusetts National Guard and Massachusetts State Police were called in on Monday to conduct air operations including water drops to help contain the fire.

The East Mountain Fire is the largest forest fire in Massachusetts since the April 9, 1999 Tekoa Mountain Fire in Russell, which burned 1,100 acres and claimed the life of Russell Deputy Fire Chief John Murphy, according to the Department of Fire Services.

Strahan said he had three of his own crew members from Greenfield in Williamstown on Sunday and two on Monday. He and Wonkka visited the fire site Saturday to determine what was needed and Strahan spent the day there Sunday. Wonkka said the Erving department had three firefighters, including himself, in Williamstown over the weekend, though there were none there on Monday. In all, about 25 members of the Franklin County Hand Crew responded on Sunday, and about a dozen on Monday.

“(The hand crew) got a lot accomplished yesterday and today, from what I hear,” Wonkka said Monday. Firefighters are expected to be needed for several more days.

The Greenfield chief said this is the hand crew’s second year, being the brainchild of several area fire chiefs who felt there was a need for a collaborative wildfire team. Training was held last year and will continue each year.

This is the first time the Franklin County Hand Crew has been used in 2021, Strahan said, and the Williamstown forest fire is the first incident that members have responded to outside Franklin County. Prior to this fire, the largest one the crew had worked at was the forest fire on Joshua Hill in Leverett last summer, which spanned more than 60 acres.

Strahan said the crew has performed well. He said it is a vital resource for firefighting, especially considering the overall reduction in firefighting volunteerism in and out of Franklin County. Greenfield, Turners Falls and Orange are the only full-time departments in the county.

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231. Reach Domenic Poli at dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.




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