Roving firefighters turn their hoses on Idaho forest Marylanders called in nationwide effort

September 06, 1992|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,Staff Writer

The American West is so hot and dry that trees burn underground.

That's what Darrell Kontz remembers about Idaho, where he and William Skinner spent two weeks fighting the Foothills Fire in Boise National Forest.

"It's very dry out there. There's only 8 percent humidity, and it was hot," Mr. Kontz said. "The ground would get superheated and the trees would just evaporate. The fire would travel underground along the root system of the trees."

Firefighters dug up the tree stumps to try to put out the fire using bags of water, he said.

Mr. Kontz, a New Windsor Volunteer Fire Department firefighter and cardiac rescue technician, and Mr. Skinner, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources forest ranger, were part of a 21-member crew from the state called in to help fight the 260,000-acre Idaho blaze late last month.

Quickly mobilized Aug. 21, the Marylanders joined seven other crews from surrounding states and flew to Idaho to offer fire suppression and mop-up assistance.

Crews consisted of Natural Resources personnel and volunteer firefighters from around the state.

The volunteers spent two weeks working 12- to 16-hour days, living in camps and sleeping on the ground.

When they left, the fire was 90 percent contained.

"The fire was contained when we left and pretty much out, but it's hard to pronounce something like that completely out," noted Mr. Skinner, who lives near Manchester. "There was a lot of sagebrush and Ponderosa pine stands that burned."

Much of the flora is expected to return, he said.

"The trees where the bark was just burned will live, though they'll probably do a salvage cut later," Mr. Skinner said.

Mr. Kontz said much of the fire suppression was done by helicopters, which dropped 1 million gallons of water over the forest in one week. The copters were especially helpful over steep terrain that was difficult for firefighters to cover on foot, he said.

Despite the firefighters' efforts, several homes and some livestock were lost, he said. But no firefighters were injured.

The two Carroll countians were involved in a program begun 20 years ago by the federal government to activate volunteers from across the country to help fight large forest fires.

Volunteers in the program must take a physical fitness test annually to remain active and an initial three-day training course. When they're called out, they are given uniforms, equipment and other provisions, and they are reimbursed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Mr. Skinner, 46, a forest ranger for 19 years, has been fighting the big fires since 1975. Most occur from July to the beginning of October, he said.

Mr. Kontz, 23, joined the program in 1988. He traveled to Yellowstone National Park in 1989 and to Oregon in 1990.

Unlike Mr. Skinner, who already was part of the forest service, Mr. Kontz had to leave his job to go to Idaho.

"I'm a physical therapy aide for Carroll County Sports Medicine ,, and Rehabilitation, and Dr. [Paul] Welliver was more excited than I was," Mr. Kontz said. "But I love firefighting, and this makes you feel you're doing something for the environment."

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