Mobilizations give Maine forest rangers vital experience

If a fire similar to the Baxter Park fire occurred today, Maine forest rangers would have the advantage of experience from managing large wildfires during national mobilizations. All photos courtesy of Maine Forest Service.

By Kent Nelson, Forest Ranger Specialist

Living in a “fire camp” is not very glamorous. It involves sleeping in a tent with up to 1,200 other firefighters nearby, limited showers and catered meals, 12- to 16- hour work days and no days off. The payoff comes when Maine’s forest rangers gain vital experience in managing large wildfires, which benefits both the Maine Forest Service (MFS) and Maine’s forest landowners. 

The key component of the mission of the Forest Protection Division is to protect forest resources, property, infrastructure, businesses and homes from wildfire. To be able to do that, forest rangers need as much wildland fire experience as possible.  Mobilizations last two weeks and provide large wildland fire (>2000+ acres) knowledge and skills. Forest rangers often doing hard labor on uncontained firelines in remote, rugged terrain. In many cases, Maine’s forest rangers have management level responsibility that affects the safety of firefighters, the public and property on a large scale.

“The qualifications and effectiveness of the Maine Forest Service today, concerning wildland fire management, as compared to that before we mobilized forest rangers nationally, has improved exponentially,” Chief Forest Ranger Bill Hamilton said.” The experience they gain is irreplaceable.”

During the fire season of 2018, Maine’s forest rangers dealt with 557 fires that burned 681 acres in Maine. They also made time for 26 separate mobilizations for out-of-state fire duty. If you include the civilian firefighters who worked with us, a total of 92 firefighters were mobilized to eleven different states as well as a remote section of Quebec, Canada. These mobilizations allowed them to get signed off for national fire qualifications. The positions ranged from entry level/upper level wildland firefighters and safety officer, to public information officer and air support group supervisor. They also went out as part of 20 person fire crews, four-person engine crews or individually, and as single resources.

Over the last few years Maine forest rangers have been dispatched to many parts of the country for most Incident Command System (ICS) positions from firefighter to incident commander. Maine, like other states, is challenged with a dwindling number of civilian call-when-needed firefighters. Crew mobilizations help to keep these firefighters motivated and fully trained, which is a high priority.

Before Maine’s forest rangers were mobilized, their experience on large wildfires was limited. In 1977, the Baxter State Park Fire burned about 1,800 acres in Baxter Park and about the same amount on mostly Great Northern land outside the park. While I mean no disrespect to the brave firefighters involved with that fire, newspaper reports indicate that “most of the fire crews were totally inexperienced.” There were 45 accidents associated with the fire (some that caused injuries) and 24 firefighters had to be rescued by helicopter as “wind whipped flames threatened their position.”

A review of the Baxter State Park fire, dated August 24, 1977, states there were “problems with using heavy equipment” in the rugged terrain and that “more training was needed for using portable fire pumps.” It also mentioned that the fire, which lasted a week, “wasn’t really organized until the fourth day of the fire.” In recent years, emergency management organizations and first responders have developed a much better system to avoid confusion on large incidents.

Maine forest rangers mobilized to several large wildfires during 2018, including the Carr Fire in northern California, which burned nearly 230,000 acres.

After the 9-11 terror attacks in 2001, all federal and state agencies were mandated to use the Incident Command System (ICS). It is now used on all large wildfires (and other natural disasters) and is well known by Maine’s forest rangers. The ICS system was designed to help incident managers organize and manage resources such as firefighters, vehicles and equipment. It is flexible and allows incident managers to change the amount of resources as the incident grows in size (and complexity) and eventually dies down. A team of safety officers are assigned to make sure firefighters are working safely and no one works more than 16 hours a day. Ask any forest ranger and they will agree that ICS can be learned through online courses and classroom courses, but is never really mastered until it you have used it on an incident.

Standardized wildland firefighting training has enabled firefighters from the eastern U.S. to become qualified to help our partners across the country. In Maine, this process starts with getting permission to mobilize from Chief Forest Ranger Bill Hamilton. It is his responsibility to make sure that there are enough forest rangers to handle any wildfires here in Maine before authorizing them to mobilize to other parts of the country. He considers these mobilizations as huge opportunities for the Maine Forest Service as well as for individuals who want to gain experience on large wildfires.

“The qualifications and effectiveness of the Maine Forest Service today, concerning wildland fire management, as compared to that before we mobilized forest rangers nationally, has improved exponentially,” Hamilton said.” The experience they gain is irreplaceable.”

On the financial side, national fire mobilizations also save the state thousands of dollars in salaries. When forest rangers are mobilized their salary and benefits are 100 percent reimbursed by the incident. In 2018, the Maine Forest Service realized $285,743 in salary savings for the hard work of Maine’s Forest Rangers on out-of-state wildfires. Additionally, engine assignments generated revenue that can be used to replace aging capital equipment.

Not all forest rangers chose to be mobilized on these fires. Some have family obligations, important court cases or other training or work commitments that prevent them from volunteering for this type of duty. In some cases, the Rangers that don’t mobilize work extra days to help patrol areas temporarily vacated by mobilized rangers. When this occurs, the USDA Forest Service reimburses their salary and benefits for those days worked here in Maine.

Out-of-state mobilizations of Maine forest rangers, such as Wes Hatch (above), improve qualifications and effectiveness of the Maine Forest Service, while providing financial benefits to the state.

Mobilizing Maine’s forest rangers helps them prepare for large wildfires here in Maine. Not only will they be ready for a large wildfire, but when out-of-state wildland fire resources are brought in to help on a large fire in Maine, the transition will go smoothly. Wildland fire mobilizations are considered a “two-way street.” Maine’s Forest Rangers are happy to help their fellow rangers on wildfires in other states. When we have another Baxter State Park fire, Moxie fire, Allagash fire or fires like the deadly ones of 1947 throughout Maine, then other state and federal firefighters may mobilize to Maine. Due to ICS and qualifications standardized by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), they can literally “hit the ground running.”

Lastly, these mobilizations also help Maine forest rangers strengthen their call-when-needed wildland firefighters. The Maine Forest Service relies on local wildland firefighters to help with wildfire suppression here in Maine. These firefighters have NWCG qualifications and take time off their regular jobs to help with in-state wildfires as well as occasional out-of-state fires. This helps them gain valuable experience and encourages them to continue to serve as on-call firefighters here in Maine. It also reduces the chance of injury, as these mobilizations expose them to established safety protocols and the ICS system.

Maine’s forest rangers are well respected throughout the national wildland fire community. They are proud to use their fire experience to save lives and reduce property loss here in Maine and across the nation. The benefits of out-of-state mobilizations are two-fold. They help improve qualifications and effectiveness of the agency as a whole, while providing financial benefits to the state. We are thankful to our private industry partners, department administration, the Northeastern Interagency Coordination Center and all the others who work behind the scenes to make these mobilizations possible.