Feeling the burn

On Monday, a group of New Yorkers, including three Essex County men, returned from helping contain a massive wildfire in Washington state.

The crew of 20 New Yorkers were made up of state Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers, employees and volunteers. They worked to contain a wildfire outside of Leavenworth, Washington for two weeks.

Robert Mecus, of Keene, is a forest ranger and crew boss on one of three New York squads. The crews is called an incident management team, which specialize in fighting wildfires and dealing with other disasters and emergencies.

“When we got there, (the fire) was roughly 1,000 acres, and when we left on Saturday, it was 9,000 acres,” Mecus said. “It’s up high in steep rocky terrain so it’s inaccessible to foot.”

The New York crews flew into Oregon about two weeks ago, with four other crews of the same size from nearby states like New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The New York crew was initially assigned to help fight wildfires in Oregon, but they were switched to Washington where the risk from the wildfire was deemed greater. They drove up to Washington the next day and joined the firefighting efforts.

“The strategy was to create containment lines in accessible areas,” Mecus said. “Constructing a fire line by hand is exactly what it sounds like, using tools to cut vegetation.”

Bulldozers plowed through the woodland, creating the containment lines, without any trees or shrubs for the fire to burn. The New York crews used chainsaws and other tools to assist in creating the 8-mile containment line. They also set up three pumps, with about six miles of hose, on the eastern edge of the wildfire. One squad worked the pumps.

The weather was dryer and hotter than the New Yorkers said they were used to. On some days, the temperatures soared up to 90 degrees.

This wasn’t the first trip to fight a wildfire for Mecus. He was one of the more experienced members of the New York crew, which also consisted of six forest rangers,, who recently graduated from the academy. Mecus was tasked with supervising the less experienced forest rangers and volunteers on his squad.

“One of the main reasons why we participate in the program is so we can send out people to get that experience in large complex incidents like that, so we can bring the firefighting experience up here and also to get that incident management experience up here,” Mecus said. “So we can continue to be experts in wildfire and other emergency experience.”

Jamison Martin, 40, of Ticonderoga, was another forest ranger who fought the wildfire. He graduated from the forest ranger academy in October. Matthew Vincent was the third volunteer from Essex County.

The wildfire proved “really hard to wrap up,” Martin said.

“The one thing that blew my mind was the scale of everything,” Martin said. “I knew they couldn’t really put a line around this thing directly; it was just such a big monster.”

Martin said he learned a thing or two from fighting the wildfire.

“You can definitely pull stuff out, as far as a big incident and how incident management works,” Martin said. “Working as a team, so many times we are used to working with other rangers, but there we were working with firefighters and others. You don’t get those experiences without doing it.”

The New York crew made it back safe without any serious injuries. A few “scrapes and dings,” but that’s it, Martin said. “New York was really focused on safety; it’s the most important thing. Even if you weren’t standing 3 feet away from the flame, it’s still a very dangerous environment.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Joe Martens thanked the forest rangers and volunteers for their efforts Monday.

“All New Yorkers should be proud of this crew for demonstrating courage and compassion in assisting others in a time of need, and we are thankful that they have returned safely,” Martens wrote in a press release.

Hundreds of firefighters from states across the country are still currently fighting several wildfires in Oregon and Washington.