Adams Center forest ranger fights Montana forest fires

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Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Howard F. Thomes remembers standing outside his tent among a large encampment of fire fighting crews, taking in the breathtaking sight.

Far to the south were the mountains of Lolo National Forest in western Montana, glowing under the night sky as a forest fire raged across the peaks.

“It was just great to see something like that,” he said.

Mr. Thomes, 55, of Adams Center, recently returned from a two-week trip to help fight a forest fire that has been burning outside Missoula, Mont. since mid-July. Started by a lightning strike on July 15, the Lolo Peak Fire has burned nearly 8,000 acres as hundreds of fire fighters and forest rangers from across the country work to stop its spread.

High temperatures and dry conditions have fueled the fire, with Missoula experiencing a significant lack of rain this summer.

“It’s bone dry,” Mr. Thomes said. “Any spark can ignite something.”

Mr. Thomes was part of a 20-man DEC crew from New York state that traveled to Missoula. Mr. Thomes and the crew arrived there on July 24, along with several other crews from Ohio, West Virginia and Missouri.

He noted that directly fighting the fire was left to the hotshot crews, so he and other rangers were tasked with cutting down brush to make it more difficult for the fire to spread to inhabited areas.

He also helped set up water pumps in homes, as well as sprinklers to saturate the ground. Much of this water is pumped directly from nearby rivers or brought in via tanker truck.

But even these jobs had their challenges. Mr. Thomes said he spent days climbing steep slopes under intense heat to cut brush.

“When you’re cutting trees, you’re sometimes standing on 40-degree slopes,” he said, adding that staying hydrated was high on the priority list.

Mr. Thomes said he was always far away from the fire, so there was never any imminent danger for him or his fellow crew members. And even if the fire begins to spread, fire watchers in helicopters and planes warn the crews far in advance so they can clear the area.

“When the smoke starts coming in and you get that radio call to fire up the pumps and get out, they give you plenty of time,” he said.

But there was one situation involving flat tires that added some excitement.

On his sixth day, Mr. Thomes and his crew were ordered to leave an area threatened by the fire. Mr. Thomes said the crews used rented trucks to get around, but the tires are not all made for the wilderness conditions. As the fire drew near, his truck blew a front tire, and it had to be swapped out with a spare. But that tire blew, too, and so did a second spare tire.

Finally, after an hour and a half of swapping tires, a fourth spare stayed intact, allowing Mr. Thomes and his crew to get away safely. That area was burnt over soon after.

Mr. Thomes, who has been a ranger for 10 years, signed up to help fight the fire as he works his way up to becoming a firefighter squad boss.

Firefighting is a big part of ranger training, he said, and rangers seeking the squad boss rank must participate in forest fire fighting at least once. Mr. Thomes said he would consider going out west to fight forest fires again in a year or two.

Three DEC forest rangers from St. Lawrence County also participated in the trip.

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