Firefighters face morale issues along with blazes

ATKINSON COUNTY, Ga. - Nearly 200 firefighters spent hours dousing the smoldering remains of a southeast Georgia swamp last week as part of the wildfire disaster team.


They then returned to their camp for a shower, but they didn't have any towels, said firefighter Mike Dodd of Savannah Fire and Emergency Services. Firefighters from other communities, such as Martinez, were also reportedly having problems.

Those who wanted to go purchase towels were prevented from leaving the camp, firefighters said. They also slept outside and ate military field rations called MREs.

One county away, firefighters slept in hotels and ate at restaurants - all free of charge, according to commanders.

The commanders since then have replaced the MREs with a trailer in Atkinson County that provides a catering service. But some of the firefighters are wondering why they are not being housed in hotels and under the same conditions as other crews.

On Friday, the commanders organizing the fight against the wildfires said they were unaware of the conditions in Atkinson County.

"We didn't know they were being treated that way," said Devon Dartnell, a spokesman for the firefighters' Joint Information Center. "Firefighters are provided with accommodations as much as possible."

Less than an hour after speaking with the Savannah Morning News newspaper, commanders promised to provide hotels and supplies for the firefighters stationed in Atkinson County.

About an hour after that, they said they were unable to provide hotels.

"They are located in Willacoochee, where there are not a lot of resources. It's 17 miles to the closest town," Mr. Dartnell said. "In order to reduce exposure to fighting fatigue on the roads, we have them sleep outside."

Matt Plagenz, U.S. Forest Service commander at the Atkinson County camp, said he wants the firefighters to be close to the scene.

"With the fire conditions the way they are, we need to have them ready in a moment's notice," he said.

According to Mr. Dartnell, "99 percent" of the 2,200-plus firefighters battling wildfires in southern Georgia are staying in hotels. They have been given passes to local restaurants for free meals, he said.

About 10 percent of the total firefighters there are at the Atkinson County site, which is outside Willacoochee Elementary School.

They initially were told they could sleep inside the school. But, when they arrived Wednesday, they were handed pup tents and cots, firefighters said.

"It's not the Hilton, but it's safe and provided for," Mr. Dartnell said. "South Georgia and north Florida are being hammered by fire. It's important everybody focuses on getting this fire storm out."

On Friday, Savannah Fire Capt. Thad Dixon spent his third night sleeping on fire hoses atop the department's engine truck.

Another Savannah firefighter slept on the back of a smaller truck, and one slept inside the truck. A fourth slept on a cot set up next to the trucks.

Firefighters from Hartwell said they were forced to leave their vehicle, which included their belongings, at a staging area in Jesup. They couldn't return until two days later, they said.

"I know there are some morale issues," Mr. Plagenz said. "We're doing the best with what we got."