County forest rangers deploy to fight out of state wildfires

Maine Forest Service Forest Ranger George Harris (with fire hose) and District Ranger Lance Martin mop up a recently burned area in the southern United States using Maine Forest Service Engine No. 6169, based out of Island Falls. The truck is a specially designed and equipped vehicle also used for out-of-state mobilizations by the Maine Forest Service.
Photo by Charles Jackman
Maine Forest Service Forest Ranger George Harris (with fire hose) and District Ranger Lance Martin mop up a recently burned area in the southern United States using Maine Forest Service Engine No. 6169, based out of Island Falls. The truck is a specially designed and equipped vehicle also used for out-of-state mobilizations by the Maine Forest Service.
Posted July 03, 2011, at 3:34 p.m.
Last modified July 03, 2011, at 7:47 p.m.

ISLAND FALLS, Maine — On the Fourth of July, many people will be thinking about the thrill of seeing fireworks exploding in the sky. Across the nation’s drought-stricken South, however, many counties are banning fireworks because of the risk of wildfires.

It is something that Maine Forest Service Forest Ranger George Harris knows a lot about. He is one of a number of rangers from the Forest Service who have been dispatched to states such as Georgia, Texas and North Carolina to fight several major wildfires.

Crews have been dispatched since April to assist in fighting major wildfires in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. In Florida, wildfires this year have blackened more than 390 square miles and killed two firefighters.

Parts of nearly a dozen states, from the Southeast to the West, are in a severe drought. And wildfires have charred thousands of square miles in recent months.

Governor Paul LePage commended forest rangers late last month who had been deployed to states to help fight several major wildfires around the country.

Harris, a longtime ranger in Aroostook County, spent 17 days in Georgia with District Ranger Lance Martin, working to contain the Race Pond wildfire in southeast Georgia.

The two spent close to three days driving a fire engine to Georgia. The Race Pond fire burned close to 8,000 acres by the time it was contained in mid-June. The nearby Honey Prairie wildfire had burned close to 300,000 acres by July 3. It was 70 percent contained by Sunday, according to a website that tracks wildfires.

Harris said that he and other crews worked 14 hours a day fighting the Race Pond wildfire and providing support and suppression.

“When we left, it was in the mop-up stages,” he said late last week. “But fire there lays dormant underground and can be hard to fully extinguish. It is really an ongoing effort to make sure it is fully suppressed.”

When they travel to other states, Maine crews serve primarily in leadership positions that make use of their extensive firefighting experience. They are mobilized at the request and expense of the federal and state governments, according to MFS officials. This is the first time that the Forest Service has sent specialized brush trucks to assist in fighting the blazes.

“I am very proud that our Maine Forest Service forest rangers can go to the assistance of our sister states to help fight these terrible fires that threaten human lives and property,” LePage said in a written statement. “Not only do they make use of their superb, nationally recognized firefighting skills, but they also extend their training and build up reciprocity in case Maine ever needs to call for similar aid.”

“All of these mobilizations help our forest rangers maintain their national qualifications for managing large incidents, whether they are wildfires, hurricanes or other natural disasters,” Bill Williams, MFS chief forest ranger, said. “They gain valuable experience and come back better prepared to handle large incidents in Maine.”

Harris has extensive wildfire fighting experience, having fought fires in Texas, Wyoming and a number of other states.

The governor’s office said that the Forest Service is anticipating sending fire crews to Arizona to fight a devastating wildfire that is raging through that state.

Due to excessive rain in May, the number of wildfires in Maine is below average, according to the MFS. To date, the state has experienced only 153 wildfires that have burned no more than 66 acres. Last year during the same time period, MFS forest rangers responded to and investigated 338 fires that had burned 234 acres.

So far, nine MFS forest rangers and one ranger pilot have been sent to help with the wildfires in Texas, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.

The MFS forest rangers working on the truck crews are limited to two weeks of out-of-state fire duty. If the fires persist, the crews generally are replaced by other forest rangers when their two weeks expire.

Should wildfires occur in Maine, the state is not left unprotected by the absence of the brush trucks, Bill Williams emphasized. The MFS will augment state-owned forest fire suppression vehicles with federal excess property trucks to fight any Maine fires, he said.

Harris said that he anticipates being called to fight additional out-of-state fires as the summer progresses.

“There are a number of states that are very dry for this time of year,” he said. “It is very easy for fires to start there, whether it is by someone carelessly tossing a cigarette into dry brush or by a lightning strike. It takes a lot of work to put them out.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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