As Wildfires Blaze Out West, Vermont Crews Provide Backup

Aug 27, 2015

The forest fires in California and the Pacific Northwest may feel very far away, but crews of local firefighters and Forest Service employees have been rotating out to those locations all summer to provide relief and assistance in fire suppression.

About nine Green Mountain National Forest employees have already completed service out West, according to David Francomb, Manchester district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. The Green Mountain National Forest’s public affairs officer, Ethan Ready, left Tuesday for a two-week rotation of public affairs support in the Pacific Northwest, and Francomb expects more crews to dispatch as well.

Many are serving on inter-agency teams with members of the U.S. Forest Service, the White Mountain National Forest and the National Park Service.

The Forest Service is broken down into nine regions, and employees are dispatched to “incidents” depending on the need. And it takes all sorts of people to fight a fire.

“You have your experienced firefighters, but you also have a bunch of folks that have a lot of resource knowledge … on, you know, the types of vegetation in the area, the wildlife that might be impacted. Different archeological or cultural sites,” Francomb says.

And the assignments vary, as well. Francomb says a unit called a hand crew might go out in a group of 20 to fight directly on a fire line. Or, an employee might be a what’s called a single resource: “You’re part of an incident management team [and] you’ll have more of an administrative type of job. Maybe participating in planning, operations, logistics, or finance, administrative needs on a fire. Possibly serving the role of a safety officer, even a public communications officer,” Francomb says.

It’s not rare for firefighters from our region to head out West during forest fire season, especially during a year with such intense blazes.

“It's common in a year like this, where there's high fire activity kind of concentrated in one location. There's not a whole lot going on in the Northeast as far as fire this year, but nationally we're at the highest preparedness level,” he says. “So when you're at that kind of a planning level, Forest Service employees are encouraged to make themselves available if they can fit within their work schedule.”

Keith Sargent, a wildland firefighter who typically works in visitor information services at the Manchester office, recently returned from a trip to fight the fires in California, where he served as crew chief.

“You’ll go directly to the fire and remove vegetation, kind of make a fuel brake, to hold the fire,” Sargent says, adding that the training that firefighters receive prepares them for whatever region they happen to land in.

“You definitely defer to local expertise on specific tactics, but there's very structured procedures that we have,” he says. “It's somewhat of a militaristic structure. It's the incident command system, and it's really nice because ... the military, the state and federal, we all operate within that system. We have the same definitions, the same procedures, and that makes things a lot less confusing. Because we respond to not only wildfires, but hurricanes, floods, different natural disasters.”

With so many Forest Service personnel being pulled from their normal locations, Manchester District Ranger David Francomb says the staffing shortage at home offices can add “a little bit of stress.”

“When you have four or five individuals out of an office with a staff of about 15 permanent employees, it can definitely have somewhat of an impact,” he says. “But the Forest Service is great about cross training employees … People are willing to step up and kind of fill in.”

As for Keith Sargent, he says answering the call of duty was a rewarding experience, despite the risks.

“I enjoy the challenge," he says. "I really like the outdoors, so for me, the idea of hiking to these remote areas, and being able to help ... You do the best you can to mitigate any hazards out there, but it can be dangerous at times.”