Heading west to fight fire

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MANCHESTER — A busy season for wildfires has resulted in employees from the Green Mountain & Finger Lakes National Forests heading west this summer to join the fire fighting efforts.

Keith Sargent and Josh Layfield, both from the Manchester district ranger station, were among those sent to the Gibralter Ridge Fire near Eureka, Mont. For Sargent, a Pawlet native, it was a return to Montana, where he had worked on a fire crew for five years. For Layfield, a Tennessee native, it was his first firefighting experience outside of training.

This year, Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests has sent personnel to Ohio, Illinois (for flooding). Arizona, California, Montana, Oregon and Nevada.

They were part of a 20-man crew assembled through the Northeastern Interagency Coordination Center at the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. It included personnel from the Green Mountain and White Mountain forests, as well as from AmeriCorps, the U.S. Army and Connecticut.

Green Mountain & Finger Lakes National Forests personnel on the Gibralter Ridge crew also included Don Pierson, Bob O'Brien and Greg Switz.

Both Sargent and Layfield said the 14 days spent battling the fire was tough but satisfying work.

"There were lot of homes threatened by that fire," Sargent said. "It was very rewarding to help that community."

The Gibralter Ridge fire started in early August with a lightning strike. It has affected more than 7,000 acres, and the area includes dense timber and steep terrain with grades of up to 35 percent, raising the degree of difficulty.

While Layfield was new to the experience, he had taken courses and completed training for such a mission.

"It's actually very structured," Layfield said of being part of a crew. "There are some great thorough plans made, even on the spot...It made me appreciate what we do so much more."

Layfield spent a day with a "hotshot crew" of experienced firefighters trained in wildfire suppression tactics.

"It was amazing," he said, explaining that he learned a lot and "also realized it was a very physically demanding day with those guys. But I loved it."

The personnel sent by the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forest also includes important support roles, such as safety officers, helicopter crew members, dispatching, mapping and security, Sargent said.

"We do have folks out right now," he said.

The hazards to firefighter safety include fire, of course, but also heat, high winds and falling timber.

"The roots get burned out when the fire goes through and they fall over," Sargent said. "You have to always be cognizant of the dangers out there. The biggest thing we stress out there is safety. "

The hardest part, Layfield said, was saying goodbye to the rest of the 20-person crew.

"Just looking back at what we had accomplished I felt like everybody wanted to stay and help out more, see it through. It was incredible how such a diverse group came together, and if I may steal a quote from our crew boss, he always said 'one team. One fight.' That was exactly what we did."

"For eight people this was their first western assignment," Sargent said. "They stepped up and they learned from the basic training and mentoring that went on."

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000.

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