Alabama firefighters answer long-distance call

Alabama firefighters answer long-distance call

Fires in the Pacific Northwest this summer have charred hundreds of square miles of forest, destroyed thousands of homes and taken lives.

Alabama has responded.

Alabama Forestry Commission firefighters have made the 3,000-mile trek to California, Washington and Idaho to battle the blazes. Their work has helped contain the worst of them and given a break to exhausted local firefighters.

“The maximum we had out at once was eleven,” said fire operations chief and coordinator Balsie Butler. “Assignments typically last 16 days, one day of travel each way and 14 days on the line.”

“I went to three,” said Ethan Barrett of the Hale County Commission office. “July in Alaska, the first of August in California, then finished up in Washington state.”

In Alabama, abundant rainfall has helped the commission in its mission to protect the state’s natural resources from fire. But four years of drought in California have dried forests to a tinder, easily lit by lightning or human carelessness.

“It’s extremely dry,” said Karl Byrd of Lamar County, who served in the Lassic fire, part of the Mad River complex of fires. “The ground was just completely dust. Even the logs and large material laying on the ground could catch fire easily.”

“We’re putting in 30-40 foot fire breaks and it was jumping them like they weren’t even there,” said Barrett, who worked a dozer crew near Hyampom, a town of 60 west of Redding, Calif. “It burnt down into the edge of camp the night before I left.”

While much of the fire targeted sparsely populated forests, many homes were threatened as well. Barrett recalled working to secure a town in Washington called Coles Corner from the 72,000-acre Wolverine fire.

“My crew was tasked with putting in a community protection line,” he said. “This was our last stand line, the last place we could catch it before it burned into town.

“A thousand houses were in there,” he added. “It would have been a nightmare.”

As they battle to protect homeowners, firefighters have to protect themselves first. Tragedy struck in late July when one of their own, David Ruhl of Rapid City, South Dakota, perished in the Frog fire in California’s Modoc National Forest.

Several of the Alabama crew, including James Williams of Chambers County and Ronnie Grider of Mobile County, were appointed as safety officers for part of their details.

“We have the same safety approach within Alabama as outside Alabama,” said Butler. “All of our firefighters have to pass tests and do training and meet health requirements.”

The Alabama crew also had experience on its side. Grider has fought fires for 27 years; Barrett for nearly 15. Byrd has worked for the state for 23 years.

But they also learned from the battle-tested locals.

“I do pick up things out West that we don’t use in Alabama,” said Grider, who served a 21-day detail in Northern California. “They use an incident command system. They’re really into chain of command.”

The Alabama firefighters faced unfamiliar terrain – literally.

“The elevation was between 5,000 and 6,000 feet,” said Byrd. “Anytime you work heavy equipment on steep terrain you have difficulties.”

“I’m from south Alabama, so it was steep,” said Grider, who worked as a heavy equipment boss upon arrival. “Even people living out there and used to it said this is about as steep as you could work in. It was tough.”

But working together with firefighters from across the country, the heroes from Alabama made a bad situation better and kept many families safe.

“There were people from Alaska, Hawaii, New York and just about everywhere in between,” said Byrd.

“We tried to help them,” said Williams, who worked on the Frog and Mad River fires. “Because, you never know, one day they might have to come out here.”

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