4 rangers return from blazing West


Charlie Robertson and Bill Skinner have fought summer forest fires out West together for 20 years, and this year is one of the bad ones.

The veteran Maryland forest rangers have recently returned from two weeks of firefighting in 100-plus-degree heat in Arizona's Coronado National Forest, knowing their respite could be brief.

Forest fires are raging in several Western states, and "the entire western United States is primed and ready to explode into flames," said Mr. Robertson, senior forest ranger for Baltimore and Carroll counties. "We could be sent back any time, anywhere, from now through mid-October."

Conditions are particularly bad in the Rocky Mountain area, while Arizona continues to fight many fires, according to the Maryland forest service's latest report.

"It's really cooking out there," said Mr. Robertson, who at 53 is one of the oldest firefighters.

Mr. Robertson and Mr. Skinner have fought forest fires from Michigan to Washington and Southern California, but this was their first trip to the Southwest, said Mr. Skinner, 47. As the forest service fire specialist for Central Maryland, Mr. Skinner is based in Madonna in Harford County and is in charge of training fire crews.

Mr. Robertson and Mr. Skinner and two other Maryland rangers went as individuals on their recent trip, but Maryland has two 20-member crews on four-hours standby. Standby duty rosters are rotated through the fire crews from states in each of nine U.S. forestry regions. The crews are sent to other states when help is required fast.

"Maryland is at the top of the list if another fire erupts," Mr. Robertson said.

Maryland crew members, divided between forest rangers and members of volunteer fire companies who have undergone forest-fire training, expect to go west at least once before the end of the fire season in October.

A full-blown forest fire is a fearsome sight, Mr. Robertson said. "I've watched those mountainsides go up. It sounds like a freight train roaring; you can hear it for miles; you can hear the pop, pop, pop of trees exploding."

Mr. Robertson, Mr. Skinner and Ranger Rick Lillard of Allegany County worked as crew representatives in Arizona between Phoenix and the Mexican border. A fourth ranger, Louise Upole of Garrett County, was a radio dispatcher.

Each 20-member crew has a crew boss, two squad bosses and a crew representative, Mr. Robertson said.

The representative oversees the day-to-day problems, such as Mr. Robertson accompanying an injured man to the hospital or getting new boots for a man whose boots had split open. "You can't take the crew boss off the line," he said.

Mr. Robertson and Mr. Skinner said working as representatives for crews of Apache Indians from the San Carlos Reservation was the high point of the trip. If they are called back, they said, they would like to work with the Apaches again.

"Their crews are very professional and very disciplined," Mr. Skinner said. "They do it almost all summer. They even gave me a nickname, 'White Apache.' "

Fires are named by local firefighters, and one, the "Maverick Fire," involved about 2,500 acres of desert grass and chaparral.

"It was in the high desert and had been burning for days when we got there," Mr. Robertson said. "We had three crews, 60 people, and we worked all night, although normally we work 12-hour shifts, day or night shifts."

Each fire is different, he said, citing his second blaze, called the "Cottonwood Fire," near Safford, Ariz., as an example. "We just let it burn and worked on it when it approached some ranches, guided it away. Otherwise it wasn't doing anything bad, and they didn't want to spend the money to put it out."

The Marylanders were at the mobilization center in Albuquerque, N.M., when word came of the death of 14 firefighters, most from tiny Prineville, Ore., in a July 6 wind-whipped fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colo.

"Everyone just went silent," Mr. Robertson said.

Firefighting is hazardous at best and fighting forest fires in dry, windy conditions is perilous beyond description.

The firefighters in Colorado apparently were enveloped by flames so quickly they didn't have time to protect themselves.

A few days later, a helicopter carrying four firefighters to a blaze in New Mexico crashed, killing the pilot and two firefighters.

The Colorado deaths are still under investigation, and Mr. Robertson said he is as curious as anyone. "They were supertrained, the best of the best. But one little ember hits in a 50-mile-an-hour wind and whoosh, up it goes."

Firefighting is back-breaking work, too, with the crews using hand tools to cut fire lines to prevent a fire from spreading or setting backfires ahead of a blaze to cut off its fuel supply.

The crews wear long-sleeved shirts, boots with sewn or nailed soles, hard hats and goggles, Mr. Robertson said.

Each person carries a backpack, two one-quart canteens and a box lunch. He also carried a quart of Gatorade and an MRE (meal ready to eat) military field ration, just in case.

"The temperature on the desert floor ranges upward of 100 degrees, and while it's so dry you don't sweat -- your clothes never got wet -- but you're losing water all the time so you have to keep drinking," said Mr. Skinner.

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