Forty from Maryland, Delaware battle fires in northeast Oregon, '40 miles from nowhere' 2 crews are 'mopping up' in the Umatilla forest

August 24, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Forty Maryland and Delaware firefighters are fighting difficult fires in dense timber "40 miles from nowhere" in northeastern Oregon.

Two crews of 20 wildland firefighters each are "mopping up" hot spots along fire lines in the Umatilla National Forest, where beetles have killed many of the tightly packed trees, creating highly combustible sections of dead woodland.

Dry lightning, which strikes without rain, has started many blazes in Umatilla and other parts of the West this year.

"It's a very big fire," Rick Lillard of Washington County was quoted as reporting from the scene. Lillard is the Western Maryland fire manager for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Lillard is the safety/administrative leader for one of the two teams using picks, shovels and other tools in varied terrain.

The 36 Maryland and three Delaware firefighters will be returning home Tuesday after two weeks. A fourth Delaware man was set to go home yesterday because of health problems.

Three more 20-member crews from Maryland and Delaware will fly west next weekend if needed.

Maryland has a pool of 105 qualified wildland firefighters, said Alan Zentz, the Maryland official who answers the federal call for help and dispatches Marylanders to western fires.

Wildland crews are selected, trained and assigned under the supervision of the DNR's Forest Service.

Each year they take refresher training courses and tests. Applicants must pass a rigorous step test or run 1.5 miles in 11 minutes, 40 seconds.

Zentz, fire supervisor for the forest service and a 20-year veteran of fighting western wildland fires, said yesterday fire officials "have a lot of concern" about forecasts for dry, hot, windy weather that could spread the fire this weekend at Umatilla.

Almost 8,000 acres of Umatilla woodland have been destroyed in one of 24 major fires still burning yesterday in the West, Zentz said.

About 1,500 firefighters have fought blazes at Umatilla for ZTC several weeks.

"They're getting a handle on the majority of the fires there," Zentz said. "Our people have been mopping up, working 14-hour shifts with eight-hour breaks. The maximum is 16-hour days. They're doing very well. Morale is high. They're taking this very seriously, as they do all assignments.

"They're in good health except for the one Delaware man," he said.

Zentz said Maryland Crew No. 1 is on relatively flat land.

Crew No. 2 was assigned yesterday to a "summit" fire line on a mountain and planned to "spike out" -- spend the night -- there, fight that fire today and then return to base camp.

The Marylanders are working 40 miles southeast of Ukiah, a remote area "40 miles from nowhere," Zentz said.

In the same general area in 1990, Maryland firefighters fought another big fire, in the North Fork John Day Wilderness Area.

The firefighting teams are each led by two DNR veterans of big fires and include volunteer firefighters, other volunteers and DNR employees.

L Delaware is represented by two members on each of the teams.

Firefighters earn at least $9.38 an hour, ultimately paid by the U.S. Forest Service.

Leading Crew No. 1 is the crew boss, Gerald Vickers of Salisbury, directing the crew on the fire line, and Lillard, the crew representative -- more experienced, a former boss, administrator and guardian of the crew's safety and welfare.

Crew No. 2 is led by crew boss Will Williams of Mechanicsville and DNR forester Stark McLaughlin of Preston on the Eastern Shore, the crew representative.

L Two of the 40 firefighters are women, working in crew No. 1.

They are Donna Baker of Carroll County, a DNR forester, and Carolyn Hurwitz, a congressional aide who lives in southern Prince George's County.

Two other congressional aides and Hurwitz volunteered for training at the Perry Point Veterans Hospital property in Cecil County.

They learned hand-tool and hose-line use and firefighting tactics.

The Marylanders flew to Oregon with eight other crews from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and West Virginia.

They thought they were going to Oregon's Heaven's Gate fire in the Wallowa-Whitman Forest but wound up at the more urgent Umatilla fire not far away.

This summer DNR has also sent 11 other Maryland wildfire experts, assigned individually to fires in the west, such as at Nez Perce National Forest, near Elk City, Idaho. Some fought fires; most dispatched equipment and personnel.

Last year, one Maryland crew fought western fires. In 1994, nine crews were there.

The firefighters sometimes get to fight blazes in their home state, typically fires of fewer than 100 acres in Western Maryland in the spring and fall.

Pub Date: 8/24/96

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