N.H. Firefighters Gear Up to Help Battle Western Wildfires
The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
Aug. 05—The 16 men and two women making up the latest New Hampshire team heads Sunday to battle wildfires in the western United States bring a variety of life experiences and skills to the mission.
This is Gary Gagnon's 23rd year being sent to far-flung woodlands to help arrest out-of-control fires. The Bath resident and Woodsville Ambulance staffer went on assignments to Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and West Virginia last year.
"People talk about the training and you've got to pass it, but the true test is out West. That is when you figure out whether you like it or you don't," Gagnon said.
"I've been saying for some time this would be my last year, but I guess you can tell I like it."
Michael Matson of Stratford is at the other end of the spectrum. This is Matson's first deployment after only three months as a state forest ranger after serving as a conservation officer for the Fish and Game Department.
"I have concerns but I feel oddly confident," Matson said. "There's just a ton of experience in the room, and I know everyone has my back. Also, I bring some assets to the table from Fish and Game, a lot of time with wildlife, hiking, search-and-rescue operations. I hope I can contribute."
However they get here, they all have one goal in mind: to become the latest line of defense for public safety-strapped departments in western states that can't possibly keep up with these unrelenting fires in such dry conditions.
Forest ranger Capt. Bryan Nowell of Goffstown will lead one of the squads.
"To be such a small state and contribute to such a massive undertaking is pretty awesome," Nowell said.
"The anxiety, the jitters getting out there is always about, OK, where are we going to go in detail and what are our immediate duties?"
This latest unit, all clad in their black "Wildlife Fire New Hampshire" T-shirts and red hats, gathered at the New Hampshire Forestry Warehouse on the grounds of Bear Brook State Park before boarding a charter bus and an eight-hour ride to Harrisburg, Pa.
On Sunday, they will fly aboard a federally-contracted charter jet with three other crews bound for Missoula, Montana.
Many in this group said they didn't even know in which region of the West they would end up.
Saturday morning the team's administrators confirmed that this crew will generally go to the Northern Rockies, which likely means working on "uncontained large fires" in remote places of Montana, Colorado and Idaho with names like Buttermilk, Bull Draw, Tenmile, Sugarloaf and Rattlesnake Creek.
Here's how the latest Fuels and Fire Behavior Advisory assessed the potential for fires getting out of control where they are going: "The increase in dead and dying understory of subalpine fir and Douglas fir makes much more fuel for surface fire spread."
These are not the biggest headline blazes in the national news, like the deadly Carr Fire in California that's so big it's created its own weather system, killed six and burned a swatch the size of Denver.
Forest ranger and public information officer Doug Miner whips out a map that shows 66 significant fire events in the region seeking help from crews like this one.
"I've never seen quite a number like this at one time, and they are of varying degrees of intensity," Miner said. "They'll get their specific orders out in Missoula and they could end up flying to another state.
"The work can be from digging a fire line with hand tools, mopping up hot spots and everything in between."
This deployment is for 16 days, 14 days battling fires and one day for travel at each end.
Forest ranger Matt Apgar said one of the adjustments for firefighters here is to understand how big wildfire fighting is out west.
"It is very big business. They have tens of thousands of acres that burn every single year, much of it a planned burn, and it's part of the ecology out there," Apgar said.
"This is such a great opportunity for our guys back East to experience this."
But this job is not for every firefighter off the street who decides they want a new adventure.
For starters they have to have training in wildfire suppression as well as fire behavior and fire weather. Each year they have to take an eight-hour refresher course and show skills in setting up their own fire shelter in an emergency.
Then they must pass a level pack test that involves walking three miles in 45 minutes carrying a 45-pound pack.
"If you're just hiking in the woods and think you're fit for this, you're not," Miner said. "At the other end, if you're pumping iron in the weight room but haven't done the cardiovascular training with it, you're not going to pass either."
Once they get out West, the rookies experience the hot, dry heat for the first time and either don't hydrate enough or don't account for the terrain, Gagnon said.
"You can't drink enough water, the humidity levels are so low it can trick you into not realizing you're losing fluids by the minute," Gagnon said. "The other thing to remember is you never go on a flat forest fire. It's always uphill or downhill. The elevation really takes a few days to get used to." The difficulty of getting full-time employees to take two weeks off—and the accompanying paperwork demands—makes it increasingly difficult to fill these crews, state officials said.
Gagnon recalls when he started out more than two decades ago. New Hampshire had a "pack-tested" group of 250 ready year-round to be deployed.
Today they struggle to fill a single crew, and the one that left Saturday had to add three firefighters from Maine and one from Pennsylvania to fill its complement.
"When you only get three weeks' vacation a year, to get two weeks off to do this, that's a real sacrifice, and it gets to be a challenge to find folks with families who can make that commitment," Miner said.
"Also it's regular but not steady work. You can go through periods where there are no opportunities for this and a lot of our younger guys if they don't get sent out right away will just drop out."
Brian Charland is another crew boss who's been on more than 30 deployments.
"It definitely is a young guy's thing to do, (and) I am getting near the end of my career," said Charland, who has served as Bethlehem's deputy fire chief.
"I started at this at 38 years old and I just got hooked on it."