By Tim Rowland
Like going off to war, when New York foresters and rangers scramble to fight Western wildfires, they seldom have any idea where they will wind up.
“I never expected to be fighting a fire in Nebraska,” said James Canevari, a Department of Environmental Conservation forester who recently returned from a two-and-a-half-week tour of duty along with nine compatriots.
But the changing climatic conditions — greater episodes of heat, drought and wind — that are being blamed for the great conflagrations on the West Coast are sparking fires across the High Plains and Rockies as well.
New York’s foresters and rangers are always on standby, ready to mobilize should the call come from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or other federal agency in need of help.
And this year, the need has been great, complicated by the coronavirus, which has cut the typical crew of 20 firefighters in half. Instead of flying, the New Yorkers were driving to the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Denver when it got an urgent call: The Nebraska National Forest near Chadron, in the Northwest corner of the state, was on fire, and it was spreading at a frightening pace. The DEC crew — which had been driving across the country, taking 16-hour shifts behind the wheel — whipsawed back to the east and with no time to rest leapt into the 400-acre Aristocrat Fire.
There, the parched brush and shrubs, known as ladder fuel, were kindling the lower branches of the trees that went up like torches, pushed by winds capable of blowing glowing embers 10 miles distant, to set off new fires. “It’s pretty bad,” Canevari said. “It’s hotter and drier everywhere you go.” And weirder. On this particular trip, the crew experienced 105-degree temperatures and snow in the space of three days.
Firefighters carry a pack weighing up to 70 pounds, with a chainsaw, tools, wedges, gas, oil, headlamps, batteries, food, a gallon of water and a 10-pound heat resistant shelter, to be pulled out of something goes terribly wrong. They do not carry camping gear; when exhausted after working 27 straight hours, they sleep on the ground.
Highly experienced and expertly trained, those with chainsaws, like Canevari, hit the line first, ripping through trees that, weakened by fire, could put the rest of the crew at risk. Then come the rakers, choppers and diggers with medieval-looking firefighting tools such as the Pulaski — half ax, half hoe — that’s used to pull roots from the earth.
Crews are right up on the fire’s leading edge, digging, scaping and clawing down to mineral soil that will not burn. The lines can be as wide as an interstate highway, but generally are not. “You’d be surprised how effective a four-foot fire line can be,” Canevari said. Of course, conditions can change that. “We always have a Plan B and a Plan C,” he said.
The awesome enormity and power of a wildfire is both frightening and at times almost beyond comprehension, said Canevari, who has been fighting fires since 2008, from California to Alaska. A 300-foot evergreen can virtually explode in flames that double its height; an acre of forest can literally burn in a second. “Firefighting is fast-paced, and it can be scary,” he said.
And the crews love it. Firefighting in the West is a prestigious pursuit and competitive. When the call comes, Canevari asks his family if it’s OK to go, but it’s understood this is mostly a formality. Battling wildfires is both an adrenaline rush and feeling of helping those who are most desperately in need.
“It’s a feeling that you are doing the best you can, and that what you are doing really counts,” Canevari said. In Nebraska, all of Chadron, a city of 6,000 people was in peril. The New Yorkers helped save it.
“I love it,” Canevari said. “It’s one of the greatest gifts I have to give.” In the West, firefighters were heroes, with people lining the streets to applaud and offer cakes and cookies. But there is little time to soak up the adulation.
As soon as the Nebraska fire was contained, another call came through to the New York crew; South Dakota was burning.