OLD TOWN, Maine — Shortly after noon Saturday, seven tired firefighters arrived by bus at the Old Town headquarters of the Maine Forest Service. They were part of a larger group of 21 Maine firefighters who were on their way home after spending two weeks battling an out-of-control blaze in a remote, forested area of Quebec province.
“It was a large fire,” said Sam Heffner, a ranger with the Maine Forest Service.
The fire covered about 20,000 acres when the Maine crew arrived to help their Canadian counterparts, the Greenville resident said, but a spell of hot, dry, windy weather spread the flames in a hurry. The rough terrain of the burn area and limited road access also hindered the firefighters.
“While we were there, it grew from about 20,000 acres to 50,000 acres,” Heffner said of the fire centered on the city of La Tuque in south central Quebec.
Earlier this month, the fire spread a haze of smoke that reached Lewiston and as far away as Boston. At one point, Heffner said, the Maine crew was pulled away from the effort by Canadian commanders because of the dangerous conditions.
The forest fire season is at its height in Quebec and the Maritime Provinces. Fire crews from New England often help fight blazes in Canada, and vice versa, through participation in the cross-border Northeast Forest Fire Compact.
Six of the 21 Maine firefighters who volunteered for the challenging backcountry assignment are rangers with the Maine Forest Service. The rest are specially trained civilian volunteers like David Proulx, a member of the Penobscot Valley Hot Shots, an elite group of specially trained firefighters. A 43-year firefighting veteran, the Jonesport resident had about 24 hours’ notice to prepare for the two-week deployment.
Proulx, who fights forest fires in New England and Canada during the summer and manages prescribed burns for the Florida Park Service during the winter, said he finds the dangerous work satisfying. A seasoned member of the team, he enjoys working with the younger firefighters and finds his experience is sometimes helpful to the group.
Proulx arrived back in Maine on his 61st birthday. It’s unusual for him to celebrate his fire-season birthday at home, he said.
“It doesn’t happen often,” Proulx said, sorting through his smoke-saturated equipment on the green grass of the Forest Service headquarters. “I’m usually out there in the bush somewhere.”
The La Tuque fire is now largely controlled, Proulx said.
Heffner said firefighters typically jump at the opportunity to test their skills in such situations.
“It’s an excellent hands-on experience,” he said. “The camaraderie is excellent. We all form friendships … and some of us are ready to go right back out there.”
Maine firefighters return from Quebec forest fire