Taking the Heat
North Atlantic-Appalachian Regional employees are supporting wildland firefighting efforts across the country
Bart Wilson nervously scanned the billowing smoke and flames cresting the ridge in front of him.
As the crew boss for the 20-person Delaware Interagency Wildfire Crew, deployed last July to the Harris Mountain fire north of Helena, Montana, Wilson knew he had to make a call. And he had to make it quick.
For most of the day, the crew had been able to keep a safe distance from the fire while working to contain it. “But the fire kept coming and it didn’t look good,” Wilson said. “So the decision was made to get everyone out of there.”
When the crew returned to the scene the next day, the forested area where they had been constructing firelines or “fuel breaks” — strips or blocks of vegetation altered to slow or control a fire — was reduced to a landscape of smoldering ash and burnt-out trees.
“This was my first time as a crew boss, so I wasn’t just responsible for myself; I needed to look out for 19 other people and make sure they weren’t in harm’s way,” Wilson said. “Sometimes you just have to trust your gut.”
In a searing summer of wildland fires, Wilson and dozens of North Atlantic-Appalachian Regional employees have signed up to support and relieve depleted fire crews across the country.
As of August 27, more than 100 fires have scorched 2.5 million acres in 12 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). More than 26,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to incidents across the country.
Since July, NIFC has raised its National Fire Preparedness Level to 5 — its highest level — due to the large increase in wildfire activity fueled by prolonged heat and drought across the West.
Art Canterbury, regional fire and emergency management coordinator for the North Atlantic-Appalachian Region, said the extreme conditions coupled with travel and other restrictions due to Covid-19 have stretched fire resources to the limit, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal land management agencies to call for back up.
Canterbury said that as of late August, nearly three dozen North Atlantic-Appalachian Regional employees have volunteered to support firefighting efforts in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, California, Arizona, and Washington state.
“Their regular jobs might be maintenance staff, IT support folks, biologists, administrative officers, law enforcement — you name it, if they are certified to help the fire effort, we can bring them in,” he said.
Though some are first timers, many have answered the call multiple times in their careers. Wilson, who normally works as a restoration project manager and geologist at Coastal Delaware National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said his recent deployment makes it 15 in nine years.
Wilson’s leadership background, combined with other specialized skills, such as heavy equipment operation, make him a valuable asset to short-handed fire crews.
“Knowing how limited firefighting resources are across the country right now, I really feel like I helped make a difference,” he said.
Not all regional employees are fighting fires on the front lines. Many are unsung heroes who provide critical support functions such as finance, purchasing, communications, and information technology.
Nate Carle, a wildlife biologist at Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Complex, worked remotely to coordinate air traffic above wildland fires in California and create temporary flight restrictions so firefighting aircraft could operate safely.
Max Riley, a network engineer for Information Resources and Technical Management, helped ensure vital computer systems stayed up and running to support firefighting efforts near the Dixie Fire in northern California.
Lisa Swainbank, an administrative officer at Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, served as a member of the Eastern Area Buy Team based in Flagstaff, Ariz., purchasing food, water, equipment, gasoline and other necessities to support the firefighting effort. She and others said the collateral duties are an extension of their commitment to public service.
“After more than 20 years working for the Fish and Wildlife Service in the same job series, I was looking for a new challenge, something that would make me feel like I was truly making a contribution to the mission,” Swainbank said. “Fire does that — it’s fast-paced and hectic. But at the end of the day, you know that what you did really helped in some way.”
Service and sacrifice
Rebekah Green, a maintenance worker at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, has served fire crew details this year in New Mexico, Arizona, and most recently, California. One of her most memorable experiences was mopping up a small fire in high timber country –working with an engine crew to extinguish embers and snuff out smoldering remnants of nature’s fury.
“Even with the hard work, we managed to have a great time and left smiling,” Green said. “Doing work that benefits the public and the ecosystem requires time and service. But looking out over a landscape and knowing that we are restoring natural cycles or assisting in wildfire prevention makes giving time and service more than worthwhile.”
As fires continue to rage across the country this summer and into the fall, Canterbury said the need for back up likely will continue. Reflecting on his own 20-year career as a firefighter, he understands the value of that service and sacrifice from multiple perspectives.
“Having others step up allows our primary firefighters to rest and recover — to pay bills, cut the grass, and spend time with their families,” he said. “It also gives our folks the opportunity to serve in a new capacity to safeguard wildlife and support communities across the country where people’s lives and property may be at stake. It’s all about public service, no matter where we are.”