July 29, 2008

Hatteras volunteer firefighters
helped douse the mainland wildfire


It may take a village to raise a child, but it definitely takes many villages to help control a forest fire.  Both Salvo and Buxton sent teams of volunteer firefighters in June to help stem the tide of the Evans Road wildfire.

The fire, which began June 1 with a lightning strike deep in the woods, quickly consumed more than 64 square miles in Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington counties.  The smoke plume, dense and obstructing vision at times, stretched as far west as the Raleigh suburbs, north to Hampton Roads and beyond, and east to Hatteras and Ocracoke at times.

So when most people shut their homes and closed the windows to keep the smoke and fire smell out, two volunteer firefighter teams answered the call to provide much needed relief to the firefighters.

“Mutual aid was requested, so we responded,” says Brian Perry, chief of the Buxton Volunteer Fire Department. 

Just a few days after soliciting volunteers, Buxton and Salvo were called upon to staff a rotation.
“Pretty much all of our guys are self-employed and they were able to give 24 hours,” explains Chief Perry. “We switched crews out each day.”

Salvo proceeded similarly, though rotating on slightly longer shifts over the weekend.

On Friday, June 13, the firefighters joined a long caravan of volunteer station crews from Nags Head, Southern Shores, and Duck and headed to base camp at Mattamuskeet High School.

Base camp allowed the volunteer and professional firefighters and disaster crews to share shelter and meals, and for the teams to be organized and deployed daily.  With approximately 50 crews present, hundreds of people occupied base camp.

“It looked like a place where people go in a disaster,” describes Gene Stoehl, a three-year member of the Salvo department.

Firefighters from across the eastern region had been called upon. 

“There were crews in from as far as Sea Level,” recalls David Carter, a member of the Buxton Volunteer Fire Department since 1979.

Despite its disaster response setting, the base camp offered free satellite television, telephones, laptop computers and Internet access, and laundry service to the volunteers.  Best of all, meals were prepared by the Baptist Men’s Disaster Response Team.

“The Baptist Men fed us three square meals a day,” says Greg Mitchell, a member of the Salvo department. “It was good homemade food.”

All of the luxuries aside, the teams woke early to be ready for 7 a.m. morning briefing – an hour and a half of logistics and directions for the day's duties.  The volunteers served under the Office of the State Marshal, which received direction from the North Carolina Forestry Service.  After the briefing, they were organized into teams of four to five crews and dispatched.

The first day was largely uneventful.  As volunteer fighters, their duties did not focus on attacking the fire but protecting structures.

“It was to supplement the local fire departments,” adds Carter.

The Salvo crew found themselves in a semi-celebrity status because of their draft truck.  They were one of two draft trucks deployed that week.

“Fire hydrants there [in Columbia and Tyrrell Counties] weren’t capable to provide water to larger pumper trucks, so we were brought in to fill trucks if needed,” Mitchell explains.

Stoehl describes the process further.  “It means that you pull water from a source, like a ditch or a pond, into the truck or through the truck to another vehicle.”  With all of the lakes and canals around the affected Pocosin Wildlife Refuge, they were moved into position.

“We got stationed at a draft point and waited,” says Stoehl.  Despite the flurry of activity, they soon found themselves playing the old game of “hurry up and wait.”

 “I had taken along a few beach chairs and got to read a bit of a book,” reflects Stoehl.

Sunday proved to be more event filled.

“They changed forestry personnel [on Sunday] so there were new ideas [at the briefing],” Stoehl advises.  “On our way to Columbia, we got called to come back to stand by while they completed a back burn.”

“We [Buxton] were one of few crews participating in a back burn where they burned off harvested wheat fields,” Carter says. 

Approximately 300 acres of fields were burned to create a fire break to help contain the surface fire from spreading.  The volunteer crews were present to assure the fire did not jump the road, to close the road to drivers (as needed), and to protect nearby structures, including silos and homes.

Mitchell describes the back burn process.  Forestry personnel drove a small John Deere Gator vehicle, dropping small amounts of ignited kerosene and gasoline. “He just drove in circles, dropping flames.”

Salvo enjoyed the privilege of being the lead truck, riding with the forestry ranger along the ditch.  The fire produced a few surprises as well.

“As we rode along, two black bears came out about 60 yards in front of us,” Mitchell says.  Like the humans, they were getting away from the dense smoke and heat.

Carter saw “fire tornadoes” from his station. “It looks exactly like a tornado.  It forms from hot ground and air picking up ash and embers and swirling it all around.”

As the crews switched out and headed back, all Hatteras Island volunteers were safe at home by Monday evening.  “We were all glad to come home,” Mitchell says.

In fact, despite being called for a five-day rotation, the crews were released on June 16 after four 24-hour shifts.

While they cannot take credit for fighting the fire, the change in tactics, described by Stoehl, Mitchell, and Carter, resulted in the fire going from being 25-35 percent contained to more than 65 percent contained within the week of their efforts. 

The major shift helped change the tide of the fire containment.  Currently, the surface fire is out, but the fire continues to burn underground because of  the peat found in the swampy areas.  Fire officials say that a prolonged period of rain is needed to assure that it is completely out.

Despite their almost sheepish willingness to discuss their work, the local firefighters view their efforts as yet another part of living and volunteering in a rural area.  And, like many stories about rural areas and small towns, they enjoyed the special connections and hospitality people share.

Mitchell recalls one story that sums up the true meaning of “mutual aid.”

“When we first deployed to Mattamuskeet High School, we lost a tread on one of our tires,” he says.  They began to make some calls to see about a replacement.

It worked out that a member of the Tyrrell County Volunteer Fire Department owns a tire company, “64 Tires and More,” in Columbia.

“Within an hour of getting our truck, they had four brand new tires on.  They gave us the tires and rims at cost, so we decided to replace all six.  They really just took care of us,” remembers Mitchell.

All of the firefighters recount the experience as positive, both in giving their time and gaining new experiences.

“I met a lot of people and made of lot of friends, both locally and other places,” Mitchell reflects.  “I was glad to help.”

A special thank you to all of the firefighters in Buxton and Salvo
who gave time to serve at the Evans Road Fire

From Buxton Volunteer Fire Department, Station 44: Joey Blink, Scott Busbey, David Carter, Douglas Dorris, Jeffrey Kieffer, Carroll Midgett, Bob Norwood, John Rice, Clyde Stowe, Jarvis Williams, and Ji Williams.

From Salvo Volunteer Fire Department, Station 48:  Vinny Indolini, Greg Mitchell, Nick Morris, Dan Runyan, Jim Spielberger and Gene Stoehl.

Additional information on the fire, including announcements, photos and maps can be found by visiting the Inciweb (http://inciweb.org/state/34) Web site.


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