AmeriCorps volunteers return from fighting fires in the Southwest

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Smelling faintly of smoke and with a little soot in their ears, five AmeriCorps members returned to Perry Point last week after spending a whirlwind two weeks fighting fires and traveling around the Southwest.

The members were deployed July 15, and flew first to New Mexico and then took a bus to Arizona, where they joined a crew of firefighters from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who were battling the Kinishba Fire on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona. Then, the blaze was not contained and had burned more than 1,500 acres.

"We were driving in, and we could see huge smoke clouds, and then we drove a little further and we could see flames! We were so excited," said Elizabeth Sigmond.

The five members who just returned are Kimberly Jones, 23, of Spring, Texas; Myrna Yuson, 23, of Tracy, Calif.; Jeff DeBlaay, 20, of Caledonia, Mich.; Jay Gregory, 22, of Charleston, W.Va.; and Sigmond, 23, of Delafield, Wis.

Upon their arrival in Arizona, they found that the Kinishba Fire was overstaffed and the team spent the first night sleeping under a bus.

Jay Gregory said the arrangement wasn't that bad.

"There was a lot of space under there," he said, smiling.

The group was then moved to the Blue River Complex Fire in eastern Arizona, where there was a greater need for them. When they arrived, the group was told to get ready -- they would be making a direct attack on the fire that night.

"That was the only time in the two weeks that I was really nervous," Yuson said.

However, the weather conditions changed, and the direct attack was canceled. That night the group slept outside under the stars and could see smoke clouds in the distance.

The next morning the crew finally got to work by helping to dig containment lines, which stop a wildfire in its tracks by clearing out a line of forest. The crew spent the next couple days assisting the bulldozers that were digging the lines. As of now, the Blue River Complex Fire is 75 percent contained.

On July 24, the team was flown to Colorado and then took a bus to St. George, Utah, to battle smaller fires, including the Deseret Fire which was started by lighting. While there, the crew engaged in several forms of indirect attack. They performed a wet mop-up, which involves finishing off areas which are no longer flaming but are still smoking, and also a cold trail, in which they survey an area and check for remaining hot spots that need to be put out.

When the crew was not needed on a fire, they were sent to a nearby lake where they picked up what they described as "a Dumpster full" of trash.

"It was great because we were still being productive," said DeBlaay, adding that the scenery was beautiful.

The group worked closely with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who provided the training for the AmeriCorps firefighters in January.

Jones said that everyone from DNR was "very interested in educating" the five of them, who were among the youngest of 20 on the crew from Maryland. The crew boss also promised to attend their graduation ceremony at the end of their 10 months with AmeriCorps.

Sigmond described the crew as, "very supportive. Like surrogate parents."

Dave Beach, the unit leader of the five corps members, added that his team's success is due in great part to "their important partnership with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources."

Upon returning to Maryland on Tuesday, the five corps members gave a briefing on their experiences, outlining pros and cons. All members agreed that almost everything was a pro, including the chance to put their training into action, the ability to learn more in the field, the friendships they formed, the contacts they made and the incredible tour of the Southwest.

The only cons were minor problems with equipment and foot care, as well as wishing that they had been certified to cut down trees.

All five members plan to continue fire fighting in some way after they leave the corps in November.

They are part of the National Civilian Community Corps, a 10-month AmeriCorps program in which participants complete 1,700 hours of service and receive $4,725 toward college payments or loans.

Beach said there is a definite chance the group could be called up again before the summer is over.

When asked if she is ready to go again, Jones quickly said, "Oh yeah!"

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