Augusta fireman has wildfire experience

Wildfires 'a fearsome thing'
Corey Perrine/Staff
Richmond County fire Sgt. Chris Thompson shows off the fire-retardant shirt and fire shelter that are issued to firefighters who are battling woodland and brush fires. The aluminum shelter is a blanket that firefighters use as a shield when fires pass over them.

Forestry officials say the fire situation has turned "critical" in southeast Georgia, where two blazes have scorched roughly 45,000 acres of forest.

Similar wildfires are burning across the country, including in New Mexico, where officials on Friday declared a 162-square-mile fire the largest in state history.

It's a familiar situation for Wayne Taylor, the special operations chief for the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department. Right now, county crews are on standby to lend assistance in south Georgia, and Taylor knows from experience what they will face when they get there.

He calls fire sweeping through treetops "a fearsome thing."

"You pay close attention to that," he said.

Though there are ample opportunities to fight fire firsthand, a lot of what wildland firefighters do is preventing further flare-ups.

The thick ground cover that has piled up under trees can smolder for years unless it's broken up and extinguished. Firefighters stir this collection of pine straw and leaves to put the fire out, along with breaking apart stumps with hand tools.

It's a labor-intensive process that leaves firefighters exhausted after a 12-hour shift.

"We take plenty of Advil," Taylor said.

Fighting house fires is intense, but typically it's over within an hour. Wildland forest fires are extinguished only through the careful coordination of hundreds of volunteers spread out over hundreds of acres. The fires can take weeks to fully put out.

Wildland firefighting gear is typically lighter than the normal gear. Helmets protect against falling branches, and a kit around the waist includes an aluminum blanket that firefighters can cover up with if the fire threatens to pass over them.

The gear doesn't protect against stump holes hidden under six inches of ash, waiting for firefighters to step into them. Closer to residential areas, ash can cover live power lines.

Firefighters follow in the tracks of giant bulldozers plowing fire breaks, trying to keep the fire from spreading. Water is sprayed from mobile brush trucks or dropped from helicopters and airplanes. Wells are dug in some places to provide a water source.

Once the day is through, firefighters return to their tents for a break. It is a lot like camping, Taylor explained, with meals eaten alfresco and the sounds of the outdoors at nights.

Firefighters are usually away from home for about a week.

Mobile showers help firefighters refresh and remove some of the grime. But no amount of scrubbing gets rid of that smoke smell.

"It'll attach itself to you," Taylor said with a grin.

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