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July 21, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Photos of men and women standing in front of acres of burnt forest while wearing bright yellow clothing, dirt on their faces, survival packs on their backs and goggles on their heads cover the walls of the Boone County Fire Protection District headquarters. Those men and women are members of an elite Missouri firefighting unit that has been fighting fires across the U.S. for two decades.
Each year, about two dozen men and women from Boone County sign up for the team. Team members can be summoned to fight fires in Missouri — typically southern Missouri — and be called by the U.S. Forest Service to fight major blazes anywhere in the country. No team member has been called into action this year, but fall, a high-risk season, is near, and Doug Westhoff, assistant fire chief at the Boone County Fire Protection District, says “there is a lot of fuel out there,” referring to dead plants and branches on the ground.
-More than 250 fire watchtowers have been constructed in Missouri, 44 of which are still active.
-In 2010, wildfires consumed 26,791 acres in Missouri. Lightning caused 15 acres of fire to burn — the rest was the result of human activity.
-Severe Midwestern ice storms in winter can lead to forest fires after the snow melts. Downed branches dry out and can easily catch fire.
-Missouri has 14 million acres of forest, roughly the same area as the state of New Jersey.
Ben Webster, state fire supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, says about 250 Missourians currently have national certification to fight fires. Whether it’s canoeing miles to fight fires on islands in the Minnesota boundary waters or helping clean debris from hurricanes, wildland fire teams must be prepared to face any kind of terrain. Those called to work on national crews are handpicked according to their qualifications and can work 8- to 16-hour days for two weeks straight.
“It takes a real Grizzly Adams type to do this,” Westhoff says.
Greg Rush, 45, is one of these “Grizzly Adams” types. He’s a man who works with his hands as a farmer and firefighter in Sturgeon and as a member of the fire team.
Wildfires can cover thousands of acres, so team members must use different techniques to fight the flames. They use direct attacks, which include smothering the fire with water or chemicals and using chainsaws and shovels to battle burning plants; and indirect attacks, such as cutting fire lines or starting controlled burns ahead of the fire to deprive it of fuel as it advances.
Having been face to face with wildfires, which have killed an average of seven firefighters per year since 2001, Rush is surprisingly calm and collected while talking about them.
Wildfire training instills in fighters the methodical, calm attitude needed to survive. Drills such as the “agility pack test” — carrying a 45-pound backpack on a 3-mile hike in 45 minutes — prepares them to respond quickly to the unpredictable blazes. “There were a lot of nights where we spent more time retreating to a safe area than we did actually firefighting,” Rush says about the Blackwell Fire in Idaho.
Teams are occasionally asked to be a part of a “spike-out” camp, a crew of firefighters who camp close to the fire’s edge whenever it’s too hard to travel there daily from base camp. Sometimes helicopters are able to resupply them, but the crews must carry enough supplies to survive for two or three days.
Members of wildland fire teams must face danger and destruction, but they also experience the serenity of nature while hiking through the mountains of the western United States or sleeping on a beach in Florida. “It’s an adventure,” Rush says. “You see a lot of country; places you never got to see before or ever again.”
“They’re dedicated folks who like what they do,” Webster says. The chance to help save people’s lives and homes as well as thousands of acres of wildlife is coupled with the opportunity to adventure through some of the nation’s most remote and beautiful areas form a calling these firefighters have gladly answered.