Holding the Fire Line
By Staff Writer
Imagine yourself halfway through your sixth fourteen hour shift in a row. You're standing on a steep mountainside, trying to catch your breath and rehydrate. It's unseasonably hot for November, eighty degrees at noon and much hotter than that on the fire line you and your team just brought under control. You're hoping for a much needed break to gulp down some food and get off your feet, even a half-hour would be welcome. Then the call comes, fire has started again on a line that you had under control hours before. You look at the tired faces of your co-workers, take a deep breath, and grab your gear. There will be no break for now. It's time to go back into battle.
That was the all too familiar experience for many state employees during October and November, as some of the largest forest fires that Kentucky has seen in many years burned in 49 counties across the state. The two primary causes of the fires were careless burning in areas that were under a burn ban, and arson. The scenario above happened on more than one occasion.
As if starting a forest fire weren't bad enough, arsonists often seek to re-start fires after crews have extinguished flames and moved on to other flare ups. This criminal activity can often transform this challenging task into a life-threatening one for fire fighters. It was in the battle against arson induced re-starts that teamwork between state agencies paid some of its biggest dividends.
Having entered into a memorandum of agreement (MOA) the Kentucky Department of Forestry and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) Division of Law Enforcement had laid the groundwork for a joint effort to combat arson. Along with Governor Bevin's state of emergency declaration in early November, DNR Commissioner Allen Luttrell made a call to Colonel Rodney Coffey, Director of the Law Enforcement Division of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. Colonel Coffey responded by deploying his Law Enforcement Officers (LEO's) to multiple areas where fires were still raging.
"The added presence of law enforcement was extremely helpful in limiting re-starts in the affected areas," Colonel Coffey said. In all, Fish and Wildlife LEO's in conjunction with the Division of Forestry cited 63 for burn ban violations, gave out 14 written warnings, and issued 31 arson citations. Perhaps most importantly, a total of 11 arson arrests were made, 8 of those by Fish and Game LEO's.
"Just having those Conservation Officer personnel and trucks so highly visible in the area had a deterrent effect on would-be arsonists," Colonel Coffey continued. "In addition, hunters and sportsmen in those regions were made aware of the problem and were more likely to communicate problem areas they may have witnessed."
However, law enforcement was far from the only area where interagency teamwork proved beneficial. To fight the wildfires, the Division of Forestry, in the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources, mobilized firefighters from across the Commonwealth. They were joined by personnel from the Kentucky Fire Commission, the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, the Division of Mine Safety and the Department of Corrections. The Kentucky National Guard also contributed a great deal. For the first time in fifteen years, National Guard helicopters were pressed into firefighting service. Blackhawk helicopters made 2,800 water drops, dropping over a million gallons of water to "stop the run of the fires" that winds and thermals between mountains sometimes whipped into a roaring blaze. Meanwhile, Lakota helicopters equipped with infrared imaging equipment, helped division supervisors like James Wright identify hotspots and deploy their resources to areas of greatest need. In addition, local firefighters in individual communities provided assistance where possible. "I've been in this job for twenty years," Mr. Wright said, "and these were some of the largest fires in terms of acreage that I have seen." The forces of nature were both a curse and a blessing during this time. Drought conditions provided lots of dry fuel for the fires. However, Kentucky did not experience high wind gusts as the Gatlinburg area did.
Ultimately, this story ends where it began with the front line firefighters and support personnel. "Just to access many of these fires required long walks across steep terrain; then, once personnel arrived at the fire line, hard, hot, physical work began," Wiley said. Many employees worked fourteen and even sixteen hour days for weeks to bring the fires under control. In addition to the physical fatigue, they missed time with their families. Many were firefighting during the Thanksgiving holiday. In all, only one structure was lost and that was an unoccupied barn. No homes were lost. Commissioner Luttrell publicly thanked all those involved as did Governor Bevin in a video posted on social media and in this newsletter.
The efforts of many state employees and a level of unprecedented interagency cooperation brought Kentucky's fires under control even before the rains began. That and some help from Mother Nature stopped a bad situation from becoming catastrophic.