July 2, 2013

Mainers await call to help in Arizona

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Four rangers with the Maine Forest Service are poised for a possible call up to help fight deadly wildfires raging across several western states.

“We have our bags packed and ready to go,” said Matt Gomes, regional forest ranger for the Maine Forest Service. “When you sign up and get posted, you commit to a minimum of 14 days plus travel” the notice to leave might be a short as three hours.

Gomes has engaged in 16 or 17 out-of-state assignments, mostly as a firefighter, though there are other specialties.

Two Maine rangers are already in Colorado, where four major forest fires continue to burn. They are working security at the base the firefighters are operating out of, where Gomes said some 2,400 firefighters might suddenly assemble.

There are dozens of fires burning in Colorado, Alaska and in Arizona, where 19 firefighters were killed. The forest fire specialists were battling a fire in Prescott, northwest of Phoenix, when a sudden shift in wind pushed the fire back on them and into bone-dry fuels that ignited quickly.

“It’s a tragedy in many different ways obviously,” Gomes said. “We look at it no different than the military. If we didn’t have these kinds of people to step up to the plate, what kind of shape would we be in.”

“I think people understand there’s a risk to it. You try everything in your power to minimize it, but you can’t just walk away from the problem,” he said. “They would want us to continue on with the mission and we have to continue on with the mission.”

Gomes said the state benefits from having firefighters available to help other states. Those that do get called gain valuable experience fighting major fires. Also the state can call upon other states if disaster, whether fires or some other major disaster, strikes Maine.

Record heat and dry conditions have created fire conditions in southern California, Utah and New Mexico.

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