LINCOLN — Western states plagued by hot, dry conditions have been beset by wildfires this summer. In late August, more than 50 large wildfires were burning across 10 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
When local resources are strained, towns and municipalities request assistance from agencies in other parts of the country.
Lincoln resident Ethan Ready, a public information officer with the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes division of the U.S. Forest Service, volunteered to serve if needed. Ready, 37, had to be prepared to leave on a moment’s notice to assist firefighters in any part of the country. Assignments are typically two weeks, with a day of travel on each end.
On Aug. 6, the three-year Forest Service veteran got the call — he and 19 others from Vermont, New York and New Hampshire would be going to Idaho, where conditions were prime for wildfires.
“I was told I’d be leaving the following morning,” Ready said. “I had to spend some time alone to mentally digest the various scenarios that I might be presented with.”
When he got to Idaho, Ready was put into a 20-person initial attack crew staged in communities that anticipated but did not presently have fires. During his two-week hitch he worked near the towns of Lowman and Cascade, Idaho, north of Boise.
August is peak season for wildfires in the Boise National Forest, according to Jill Leguineche, dispatch center manager for the Boise office of the Bureau of Land Management.
The U.S. Forest Service uses a ratings system to assess how vulnerable an area is to wildfire, based on weather conditions, dryness and available fuel sources. One is the lowest risk, while five is the highest.
“When we see areas come in at four or five, we know our local resources will be overwhelmed,” Leguineche said. “It’s not uncommon to bring in outside firefighters.”
Parts of the Boise National Forest reached this critical stage July 16, Leguineche said.
Weather conditions deteriorated shortly after Ready arrived.
“There was lots of dry lightning,” Ready said, referring to lightning strikes during thunderstorms that produce little precipitation. These storms are particularly dangerous because they spark wildfires, and often produce wind gusts that fan flames.
“The fires sparked by lightning could smolder for days before being detected,” Ready said.
It was the firefighters’ task to prevent these small fires from erupting into large ones.
On Aug. 8, the day after Ready and his team arrived, thunderstorms swept through the area and ignited 30 fires.
The area of Idaho the firefighters worked, in and around the Boise National Forest, is full of coniferous trees. These include subalpine fir, and lodgepole and ponderosa pines, which can grow to 70 feet tall. When ablaze, flames from these trees can reach more than a hundred feet into the air.
Ready’s crew and others battled steep terrain and daily temperatures in the mid-90s, all while wearing 45-pound packs.
“We were up at 6 a.m. and it wasn’t uncommon to work 15-, 16-hour days,” Ready said.
Working at high altitude also added to the difficulty of the job. Crews worked 8,500 feet above sea level. To put that in perspective, Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak, is just 4,393 feet above sea level.
“You almost have to take some time to acclimate yourself up there,” Ready said.
Some of the fires were only half an acre in size. The North Fork Fire outside the city of Cascade started Aug. 15 and grew to encompass 327 acres.
“It was the largest fire I’ve ever encountered,” Ready said, adding that he was also new to working on such steep terrain.
Ready’s crew worked with two other 20-person attack crews, a 20-person hotshot crew, and two 8-person smoke jumper crews — nearly 100 firefighters in total. The fire would not be fully contained until Sept. 9.
Ready and the others laid hose lines and cooled down areas that were smoldering. They also dug fire lines — 16 inches wide around the perimeter of the fire. When flames sometimes jumped the fire line, firefighters had to battle them back and dig a new line.
Firefighters dragged smoldering debris into “the black” — an area that had already been burned, so the flames would not have any fuel to grow larger.
Overhead, aircraft dropped flame retardant and helicopters dumped water onto the flames.
“You have to hand it to those people,” Ready said. “It really makes our job easier.”
Ready described the flames as intense, and said it was important to always be vigilant, noting that trees that have burned but still stand are weakened, and could collapse at any moment.
Ready said his team had no close calls while battling fires in Idaho, but the deaths of 19 firefighters earlier this year while battling a wildfire in Arizona were on his mind.
“It was a very unfortunate situation,” Ready said. “You never want something like that to happen to you or the guys you’re working with.”
After working on the front line for 14 days, Ready returned to Vermont on Aug. 23 to resume his duties at the Forest Service office in Rutland.
Before joining the Forest Service, Ready had no previous firefighting experience.
“Firefighting has always been an interest of mine, and I have always admired people who serve others,” Ready said.
Ready said he was glad to answer the call in Idaho, because Vermont may need aid someday as well.
“We do have wildfires in New England, and when we do we expect national resources to help,” Ready explained. “Firefighters out West expect the same from us.”
Zach Despart is at firstname.lastname@example.org