Editor’s note: This story is the first in a two-part series about wildfire fighting in Pennsylvania. Read about the air operations used to fight wildfires in Wednesday’s newspaper.
Last April, firefighters battled an 8,000-plus-acre wildfire in the Poconos.
Dubbed the 16-Mile Fire, the blaze required five air tankers, two helicopters and additional crews from other states to help suppress it.
People associate really destructive wildfires with the West, but they can happen in Pennsylvania, too, said Larry Bickel, public information officer for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry.
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The fire behavior in the state is getting more “aggressive,” Bickel said.
For Pennsylvania, wildfire season is the spring — anytime there’s no snow and the natural vegetation is dormant, things can burn, said Mike Kern, Division of Forest Fire Protection chief.
The peak of wildfire season is April, when the weather has warmed up, but the forests aren’t green yet, he said.
Humans cause almost all wildfires in the state, he said, with the two leading causes being debris and brush burning and arson.
Three conditions are necessary for wildfires to occur: a fuel source, dry conditions and an ignition source.
“Prevention is priceless,” Bickel said, saying that if fires don’t start, crews don’t have to suppress them.
Pennsylvania has a network of people and equipment to fight wildfires and protect valuable resources and property.
DCNR relies heavily on volunteer fire companies, which are often the first to arrive at wildfires because they’re local and close, said John Hecker, district forester for Moshannon State Forest.
In the past 20 years, volunteer companies have dwindled, Bickel said.
That’s the case in the state and nationwide. DCNR also has fewer employees than it used to. Many of the people in the fire divisions are younger, and while they’re willing and capable, they lack the experience of a lot of the people who have retired, Kern said.
The Bureau of Forestry has about 1,000 forest fire wardens — some of whom are employees and others are volunteers who have taken training to be able to fight wildfires, he said.
“It’s a fairly tight-knit group, so there’s a lot of camaraderie and just some really good people work in the fire program,” he said.
Firefighters on the ground use trucks and backpack tanks to get water to fires, Bickel said. Though the best tool to fight fire is fire. Using “drip torches,” crews can burn up vegetation under controlled conditions before the wildfire can burn the area.
Crews on the ground also use hand tools to rake away fuel sources and provide a break that the fire will eventually get to and stop at, Hecker said.
Aircraft are another tool for the guys on the ground, said Jason Williams, aircraft operations and safety specialist.
Planes can slow fires or they can create a fire wall to keep it from spreading, Williams said.
Flying aircraft can be dangerous, though, especially when there are drones in the area.
“The people with the drones, (a wildfire is) something for them to videotape. ... and so it’s like moths to a flame. That’s what concerns us because a bird can damage an aircraft and they’re soft and squishy, and these aren’t. So they can really inflict some damage to the aircraft,” Williams said.
DCNR has the ability to request a flight restriction to clear all other aircraft (including drones) out of the area when they’re fighting fires to keep their pilots and crews safe, he said.
Aircraft are only called in if there’s a high threat, Hecker said, where high-valued resources or homes are threatened.
The planes cost about $25 per minute to fly, Bickel said.
And once a fire is put out, it’s the job of people like Bickel to figure out how it started and, if possible, who started it.
“Anyone (who) lights a fire is responsible for the suppression costs,” Hecker said, and if that person can’t be found, or a person didn’t cause it, taxpayers foot the bill.
Pennsylvania’s wildfire fighters also lend a hand around the country when they’re needed.
Bickel said after the state’s wildfire season ends, he’ll get posted to be available elsewhere in the nation.
The 63-year-old, whose enthusiasm for the work is obvious, is retiring from the Bureau of Forestry in June, but he still plans to keep helping out.
“I’m still learning how to fight fire,” he said.