Maryland's Wildland Fire Crew helps combat wildfires at home and nationwide

Aaron Cook, State Forester from Hagerstown, and Dakota Durcho, State Forester from Frederick, are part of the Maryland DNR Wildland Fire Crew, an elite forestry brigade called to extinguish blazes across the country through a cooperative agreement with the USDA Forest Service. This agreement allows state forestry organizations to provide trained firefighting resources to assist with the efforts to contain and control some of the largest wildfires in the nation.

When 2020 wildfires exploded here in Maryland, California, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas and West Virginia, the USDA Forest Service requested Maryland’s Wildland Firefighters to battle the blaze — shoulder to shoulder with equally specialized crews arriving from other states and from abroad to help.

The Frederick County Forest Conservancy District Board endorses forest management, which reduces the potential for wildfires, because even here in Maryland wildfires are a common occurrence. The Maryland Forest Service responds to an average of 325 wildfires a year that burn more than 3,200 acres of forest, brush and grasses. Fire departments respond to over 5,000 wildfire incidents per year.

Local fire departments may be the first on the scene to save property and people, but trained foresters come to extinguish any fire over an acre or on state property. The harrowing images from last year’s fires in Australia and California have shown the enormous skill and training that these men and women employ to save our lives and our forests, which are essential for our planet’s survival.

Maryland type 2 initial attack (T2IA) Crew 1 (MDS1) tackling a hard to access spot fire in south central Wyoming with the help of a bureau of land management (BLM) Helitack crew in 2020.

According to Wildfire Today, “an average surface fire on the forest floor might have flames reaching 1 meter in height and can reach temperatures of 800°C (1,472°F) or more, and can give off 10,000 kilowatts or more per meter of fire front.” Working under these extreme conditions requires an extensive understanding of the different types of fires, trees, brush, topography and meteorological conditions, not to mention equipment, skill, training and coordination with Park Services, Land Management, Intertribal Councils, and Fire and Aviation Management.

The elite “hot-shot crews” and “smokejumpers” of trained Wildland Firefighters often go in first, followed or joined by Wildland Fire handcrews like the Maryland DNR Wildland Fire Crew. Each crew is comprised of 20-plus experienced men and women with chainsaws and hand tools. They carve a path and form a fire break to stop the spread of the fire. In more accessible terrain, the hand crews are supported by bulldozers; four-wheel drive fire trucks equipped with pumps, water and tools; and larger fire trucks carrying 1,000 gallons of water to contain the blaze. Aerial support is often provided by specialized airplanes and helicopters, which can move equipment or deliver water in rugged or inaccessible terrain.

These crews are deployed more often since climate is changing and many of our forests, especially in the West and Southwest, are suffering from drought. Last year, our local Wildland Firefighters deployed four or more hand crews, 12 engine crews, and three dozer crews, each for two- to three-week deployments in internationally-coordinated efforts to keep the world’s forests safe. Our local Wildland Firefighters, nonetheless, enjoy camaraderie with crews from various other states, federal agencies, and Mexico, South Africa, Canada, Australia and others while they camp close to the blaze.

The Maryland DNR Forest Service has participated in mobilizing Wildland Firefighters for dispatch throughout the United States since 1974. Participation in this national effort is possible because the agency is able to provide nationally trained, certified and equipped personnel on short notice to any location in the country to assist with protecting lives, property and natural resources.

In addition to the nationally standardized training and certification, firefighters must annually pass an arduous physical fitness test. By participating in this program, state personnel meet an immediate national need and, at the same time, gain valuable experience that advances firefighter skills used to suppress wildfires that occur here in Maryland. Maryland also benefits financially, as national fire mobilizations save the state thousands of dollars in salaries. When DNR employees are mobilized, their salary and benefits are 100 percent reimbursed.

Article by Sonia Demiray, FCFCDB

Photo's credit: - Aaron Cook

Page header photo - Maryland type 2 initial attack (T2IA) Crew 2 (MDS2) after a shift on the Clear Fire, a large wildfire that scorched 100,000 acres of the Klamath National Forest near Happy Camp, California, in 2017.

Published 2/20/2021 in the Frederick News Post