LITTLE ROCK – Wildfires out west have been in the headlines for weeks, and today I’d like to share some news about state and federal responders from Arkansas who are out there fighting them.
These firefighters are among Arkansans (and Oklahomans) who have deployed to at least ten states this year to fight fires. This cooperation among states is essential to recovery from disasters of all sorts – Arkansas power companies sent scores of linemen to Louisiana to assist in the restoration of electricity after Hurricane Laura.
Josh Graham, an employee of the U.S. Forest Service from Hot Springs, and Les Miller, an employee of the Arkansas Division of Forestry, are two of the leaders from Arkansas who have been in Oregon for nearly two weeks fighting the 10,000-acre Thielsen Fire, which started on September 8th.
Les is the boss of the Razorback Crew, a 20-person fire-attack crew that actually includes three Oklahomans. Two of the firefighters are women.
Josh, a smokejumper who has made 160 jumps from planes and helicopters into fire sites, is in charge of two divisions of firefighters, including the Razorbacks.
The crews generally work for 14 days but their assignment can go for 21. The Razorbacks are sleeping in tents and sleeping bags at a ranger district near the fire. Their days begin with a 7 a.m. socially distanced briefing, which incorporates public-address speakers and televisions.
They cut and remove trees and other sources of fuel for the fire. They guide the helicopter pilots who drop water and fire-retardant. At least four members of the Razorback crew spend their days digging fire breaks.
They come off the fire about 6:30 p.m. out of a concern for safety at the site as well as the real possibility of colliding with one of the multitude of elk, deer, and other wildlife that roam the roads at night.
The work doesn’t end at dark. After supper at the camp, they refuel the trucks and clean up the dozers; they sharpen and fuel up the chain saws; they clean the shovels, axes, and Pulaskis – that’s the firefighter’s best friend, a tool with an axe blade on one side of the handle and a sharp grubbing hoe on the other.
A frequent topic among firefighters is the value of prescribed burns, a fire that is set intentionally to consume underbrush and dead wood, which reduces the risk of a wildfire. Even as Josh is fighting the Thielsen Fire, he is thinking ahead to February in Arkansas when the Forest Service plans to work with the Arkansas Division of Forestry on multiple prescribed burns that could total 250,000 acres. These controlled fires are set when conditions are right to reduce the impact of wildfires and make the state and federal forests healthier.
It was reassuring to hear that even as our firefighters battle a 10,000-acre fire in the Oregon wilderness, they also are taking precautions against COVID-19. I hope they’ll find some time for another preventative action – a flu shot. I’ve had mine, and I’m encouraging everyone who will listen to me to get one. Anytime we can reduce risk in life – whether it’s with a prescribed burn or a vaccination – we ought to do it.