Local forestry agents share experience assisting with West Coast wildfires

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COEBURN, Va. (WJHL) – As fires continue to burn on the West Coast, resources and aid from agencies across the United States are pouring into states like California, Oregon, and Washington in an effort to suppress the spreading flames.

Help from Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee has been ongoing since these fires began earlier this summer.

Casey Howard, the Assistant Fire Management Officer for the USFS Flatwoods Job Corps Center in Coeburn, Virginia, is one of the many who have been dispatched out West to help with the fires firsthand.

FILE – In this Sept. 15, 2020, file photo, scorched property stands at an intersection in Blue River, Ore., days after a blaze known as the Holiday Farm Fire swept through the area’s business district. Oregonians are grieving the loss of some of their most treasured natural places after wildfires wiped out campgrounds, hot springs and wooded retreats that have been a touchstone for generations in a state known for its unspoiled beauty. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP, Pool, File)

Howard told News Channel 11 that he is actually from the West Coast and spent the better part of 12 years helping battle these blazes, so he packs plenty of experience under his belt.

His recent deployment was for a full two weeks beginning on September 7th. “We did a little bit of fire suppression while we were there. I was able to help lead the module and suppress the fires and keep them small,” said Howard.

He was deployed to the National Forest just outside of Eugene, Oregon, and said he would gladly go out and help again, especially during such a trying time. Howard said he was able to keep the blaze suppressed while on deployment, but unfortunately shortly after he left, a larger fire broke out and it’s a continuing problem along the West coast.

The summer months out West tend to be especially susceptible to wildfires because of the dry conditions. “The West is known for those dry conditions that arid temperature and all that and when you get that wind in there, these fires will move a lot faster,” said Howard.

According to Howard, about 800 people from the Southern region are currently assisting with the fires out West, but not all of them are battling the blaze firsthand. Others deployed are handling important roles such as working dispatch in the impacted areas.

Carrie Powell, Center Manager for the Virginia Interagency Coordination Center, has been dispatched out West a number of times within the past two months. Her role is to oversee the dispatch center and assist in mobilizing resources all over the nation.

While she’s not actively on the frontlines, handling the calls of evacuees plays a vital role in the process. “For us in dispatch, we’re talking to those folks on the phone as they’re being evacuated and having compassion and understanding for them,” said Powell.

It’s an all hands on deck effort for everyone involved in providing relief and assistance to the Western region. “It’s crucial and important and I think they’re very thankful for the help and I think all of us work towards the same common goal in getting each other resources whether that’s our fire season or their fire season,” said Powell.

When asked what the busiest time of the year is for someone in their line of work, Powell stated that all the time is pretty busy because Fall and Spring happen to be fire season locally across the South, and during the Summer their time is spent supporting the West during their fire season alongside assisting with any and other natural disasters that may occur across the United States.

Kymberli Hoffman is the Assistant Center Manager for the Tennessee interagency coordination center and was deployed in Colorado for a total of 30 days. Many of those days, long and difficult. “We all have long days. We work 12-16 hour days just depending on the need,” she said.

However, it’s a task she said she’d gladly do again and again if it means helping those who need it the most. One of the differences this time around was the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did it alter operations, but posed a challenge for those working.

Despite the challenge, Hoffman said it made their team stronger and taught them more along the way. “We learned about how we can do a lot of this stuff virtually so that’s the one benefit I think has kind of come out of this for everybody and it’s that we’ve learned how to utilize all these new tools,” said Hoffman.

While the fires out West are devastating, Howard wants to remind people that this can happen anywhere. It can even happen here in the South as we prepare to take on the start of our own fire season in just a few weeks.

“We’re anticipating a higher than average fire season here so if people could just keep that in mind because we don’t want to see the kind of catastrophic fires that are happening out West start happening here in the East,” said Howard.

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