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FIGHTING FOREST FIRES: A DANGEROUS PROFESSION
By Marshall McClung
The recent deaths of several firefighters battling a forest fire in Colorado brought to mind several instances in my fire fighting career which spanned almost three decades. Even though much training goes into preparing for fighting forest fires, there is still much danger and risk involved. Firefighters are trained not only to fight fires but to do it as safely as possible. There is a training course entitled "Firefighter Survival" that deals strictly with surviving many dangerous aspects of fighting fire including being overrun by the fire which was the case of the firefighters in Colorado. In addition, firefighters are issued a fire shelter made of heavy gauge aluminum foil which has been proven to help firefighters survive the intense heat and smoke when trapped by a fire.
Graham County and the Nantahala National Forest have been very fortunate in having no recent deaths or injuries due to fighting forest fires. The last local fatality on a forest fire was in 1968 when Wade A. Sutton, Swain County Ranger for the N.C. Forest Service died while fighting a forest fire in the Nantahala Gorge near the Appalachian Trail. A marker erected in his memory on the Appalachian Trail reads: "On December 7, 1968, 783 feet southwest from this point Wade A. Sutton North Carolina Forest Service Ranger gave his life suppressing a forest fire that you might more fully enjoy your hike along this trail."
I remember vividly being over run by a fire in California. We were building a fireline out the top of a mountain attempting to keep a campground from being destroyed by the fire. A paved road leading to the campground ended near where we were building the fireline. The fire came first up in the tree tops; what firefighters term a "crown fire. The fire burned across our crew high up in the trees dropping burning limbs and embers all around us. Next came the fire on the ground coming straight up the mountain at us. An alert supervisor sensing we were in serious danger ordered an air tanker to drop a load of retardant in our vicinity. This slowed the fire down long enough for us to escape. The smoke was so thick that I could barely make out the form of a firefighter barely a few feet from me. The only way we could tell when we made it back to the paved road was when we felt it under our feet. After a brief respite to recover from smoke inhalation and the intense heat, we resumed fighting the fire which destroyed the campground along with several thousand acres of forest land.
Another close call, this one on a huge southern California brush fire resulted in a phenomenon known as a "fire whirl" or "fire storm." The unstable air mass associated with a huge forest fire results in the creation of wind patterns similar to a small tornado, often creating funnels similar to that of a tornado. This makes it very difficult to control the fire and endangers firefighters in the vicinity. On this particular fire, a funnel was formed well inside the fire and started swirling toward the section of line where I was stationed. Different wildlife including bears and rattlesnakes began coming out of the forest and into the fireline with us attempting to escape from the fire. I was soon cut off from going any direction other than across the fireline and into dense brush. I was attempting to get through the brush with no success and realized the fire was going to get me. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the fire whirl which had formed a large funnel made a ninety degree turn from me and turned up the mountainside and trapping a crew on top of the mountain above me. Some of that crew received serious burns and were flown to a local hospital by medivac helicopter. I can only credit the Lord for sparing me as it was unusual for the fire whirl to make such an abrupt turn where it did. The heat had been so intense my clothes smelled like the had had a hot iron on them. Drinking water in my canteen on my side was so hot it would almost burn your lips. It would have been just right to have used for shaving. A can of apple sauce in my pack had gotten so hot that the ends of the can had swelled out.
Forest fires can move deceptively fast when they are making a "run." I once saw a fire in Utah burn out a canyon about a mile long in a little over two minutes. A crew working with a fire engine in the head of the canyon barely escaped with their lives.
Almost every year, several firefighters from Graham County help battle forest fires in the western United States. This year is no exception. A crew from western N.C. including some from Graham County were on a separate fire about forty miles from where the firefighters were killed in Colorado. We need to keep them in our thoughts and prayers while they are out there. I always hoped someone prayed for me when I was on the fires. I believe someone did. I survived some close calls.
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This page is maintained by Tom Livingston, Robbinsville, North Carolina