NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – It’s been an earlier and hotter summer fire season out west.
The National Interagency Fire Center says more than 95% of the western part of the U.S. is experiencing drought, the most expansive and intense drought this century creating prime fuel for wildfires. Wildfire activity in that region is only expected to accelerate.
“The crews out West, resources out west are worn down, they’re tired. A lot of those resources have been away from home for months on end,” said Joel Blackburn, Handcrew Leader with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry.
It’s why more than 100 firefighters from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry have been requested by states and deployed to at least a dozen states so far. This includes assistance in Tennessee requested by the U.S. Forest Service. They also deployed equipment like fire engines.
“So, we go out to provide support, gives those guys a relief that somebody’s coming to help,” said Blackburn.
Handcrew Leader Joel Blackburn has been volunteering to provide support to states for about eight years. Tasks range from attacking the wildfire, protecting communities and structures, to digging fire lines so there’s nothing to burn, preventing the wildfire from spreading.
“Digging a line we have twenty people, so everybody hits a lick, and you move, so by the time the twentieth person comes through its not as much work to dig a line, uh, it can be pretty grueling, takes a lot more mental strength I guess than physical because you can’t quit, you gotta keep going,” said Blackburn.
Firefighters can stay up to four weeks to help. The experience allows them to keep skills elevated, learn new ones, plus continue training that can lead to leadership roles on the fire lines. Plus, firefighters bring all that experience back to Tennessee for our fall wildfire season which starts in October.
“So, it helps us make quicker, more accurate decisions here at home.”
Blackburn says all this wildfire-fighting experience out west came into play during the Smokey Mountain Wildfires of 2016 which he put into action.
“During chaos, you have a group of guys you’re leading, just pick a small goal, so we’re all focused on the big fire, the big flame front, let’s save that one house, so if you get the crew focused on the one house to save it, if that’s successful you move on to the second house, third, fourth,” said Blackburn.
“Our folks that go out West and help other states across the country are heroes because it really takes a tremendous amount of passion and commitment to helping people and it also comes with a tremendous amount of sacrifice personally to leave your family for two to four weeks at a time. This deployment opportunity not only assists us in the operational side, uh with hand crews and firefighters to actually go out and put the fires out, but we also have a collection of personnel working in other sections of the incident command system from finance, logistics, planning all developing their skills as well so we feel like we’re going to be in a greater position moving forward to not only fight the fire on the ground but manage the larger event as a whole,” said Fire Chief Wade Waters.
“As hard as it is, as grueling as the work is, it’s rewarding knowing that we’re helping the people out West but we’re also investing in our guys here at home,” said Blackburn.
So we honor firefighters with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry as our News 2 Gives Back Hometown Heroes for the month of August, presented by TriStar Health, for their volunteerism and dedication in supporting other states to fight wildfires, saving structures, and lives.