FORT KENT, Maine — A crew of 20 Maine firefighters has spent a week battling wildfires in Oregon even as smoke from those fires drifts more than 3,000 miles to the east creating hazy conditions over northern New England this weekend.
Dozens of fires are burning hundreds of thousands of acres in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, and the Maine crew will likely spend another week on the fires’ front lines, according to Matt Gomes, regional forest ranger with the Maine Forest Service.
“This is how these fires are fought,” Gomes said Friday. “There are actually a very small amount of people dedicated to fight [wildfires] in a specific area, [and] the whole system relies on cooperators like the Maine Forest Service to support the national effort.”
It’s a system that works both ways, Gomes said, as crews from around the country would travel to Maine in the event of catastrophic wildfires in the state.
“This is not just about Maine helping out,” Gomes said. “It is definitely a two-way street.”
At the same time, working with crews out of state provides experience for the Maine firefighters, Gomes said.
“That’s the other side of the coin,” he said. “Our firefighters are getting unbelievable amounts of experience on wildfires, and that is how we get that experience.”
Lead by crew boss and Maine Forest Ranger Mike Daigle, fellow rangers Will Barnum and Kevin Somers are with 17 civilian firefighters from around the state assigned to fires in Oregon’s Vale district in the eastern part of the state near the Idaho border where the Kitten Complex, Camp Creek and Rye Valley fires are burning more than 33,000 combined acres, according to the online site InciWeb, which lists active fires around the country.
The Maine crew is working by directly attacking the fire on the ground using hand tools, chain saws and portable water pumps and patrolling areas where the fires have been contained in order to deal with any flare ups, Gomes said.
“It is very hot, dirty and smoky work,” he said. “It is very physically demanding [and] can be dangerous.”
While deployed, the Maine crew lives in a camp with up to 2,000 other firefighters working 16-hour shifts and sleeping in tents. Firefighters are typically deployed two weeks at a time, Gomes said.
The crew is part of national pool of firefighters who make themselves available throughout the year and must often pick up and go with minimal advance notice.
“When an incident has a need, the system matches the resources and people available for that need,” Gomes said. “As is often typical in situations like fires, by the time they recognize the need for that resource, they would have liked them there a half hour ago.”
The costs associated with that travel are picked up by the state needing the help.
Gomes said there are additional crews from around New England staging this weekend in New Hampshire and preparing to head west to fight the fires.
For those living with the threat of the fires, outside help is always welcome.
“When there’s a wildfire in one’s neck of the woods, people don’t question where the help is coming from, they’re just grateful,” Maryann Boles Cerullo, a resident of Powell Butte, Oregon, said Friday. “Our guys have very willingly traveled to other states, too, [and] they all go where needed most.”
Cerullo lives in central Oregon, west of the Vale area, and for the moment is safe from fires.
“A week or so ago, we were totally surrounded by fires,” she said. “We did not see the flames but saw smoke, [and] it was so thick, we could not see the next street over from our house.”
At that level, according to the DEP website, people sensitive to poor air quality should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion and watch for symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath.
“The winds aloft flow east to west across the northern tier of the U.S. at 20,000 to 30,000 feet and carry that smoke along,” according to Corey Bogel, meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Caribou. “As long as those large fires continue to burn, we can expect the threat of smoke all summer.”
Bogel said shifting wind currents should clear the smoke out later in the coming week.