Answering the call: Member travels to South Dakota, Nebraska to fight wildfires
By KATE MOSTACCIO
You can’t look at online or television news without seeing images of the devastating wildfires raging across the western United States.
A team of 10 dedicated professionals from New York recently answered the call to assist, including PEF member Jonathan Cleveland, a forester with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Cleveland manages all aspects of state forests in Steuben County, including timber sales, recreation management and boundary line maintenance for the 55,000 acres of forestland in DEC’s Region 8. He is on a list of volunteers who have national training to combat wildfires and when he got the call to help, he jumped at the chance.
“The state has agreements with other sister western states that they can send out hand crews to help fight incidents,” Cleveland said. “It’s not just wildfires but any natural disasters. I am really interested in it. It’s a nice perk to be on a list with great people that like to go out west and help. It’s also hard, two weeks away from your family, but I really enjoy it.”
Heading out west
Cleveland said volunteers can be employed in an array of different jobs. As long as they have the training, they are eligible to participate. This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the state reduced the usual crew of 20 volunteers down to 10 for the Aug. 25 assignment.
The first team comprised of the following DEC employees, in addition to Cleveland:
• Mike Thompson, Forest Ranger, Crew Boss, Hamilton County
• James Canevari, DEC Division of Fish and Wildlife, Onondaga County
• Joshua Choquette, DEC Division of Fish and Wildlife, Delaware County
• Jenna Curcio, Forest Ranger, Otsego County
• Aaron Graves, Forester/DEC Division of Lands and Forests, St. Lawrence County (PEF member)
• Joe Pries, Forest Ranger, Dutchess and Putnam Counties
• Scott Sabo, Forest Ranger, Franklin County
• Nate Shea, Forest Ranger, St. Lawrence County
• Timothy Yeatts, Forest Technician, Cortland County
A second DEC crew traveled to the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Denver, Colorado, on Sept. 12.
The pandemic also changed the way the team traveled out west, Cleveland said.
“We typically fly but this time we drove out,” he said. “With COVID, they wanted us to be self-sufficient. We brought all our own tools, water and meals in our trucks and we drove out west.”
The team staged in Wyoming before receiving an assignment at an incident in Nebraska, forcing them to travel back east a few hours where they responded to a grass fire near the Nebraska National Forest. The team’s night arrival meant they had not seen the terrain in the day and that made response more perilous.
“We sat on the fire all night,” Cleveland said. “We were on night ops, watching the fire while the day time crews rest. We’re watching to make sure nothing jumps the hand-dug line, which is where they take equipment and basically push all the vegetation out and it’s just bare ground. The only thing left burning were tree stumps and downed trees.”
After spending their first days of service working from 8 p.m. to 9 or 10 a.m. and sleeping during the day, that fire was considered 100 percent contained and the team was sent to Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota for their second week.
The second incident appeared small but had the potential to become large. Cleveland said he has been asked often why out-of-state crews are sent to battle smaller fires – such as the South Dakota blaze, which only impacted 5 acres.
“Most of the resources out there are just spread thin,” he said. “There are so many different wildfires going on at all times, especially in California, that are sucking federal and local resources. For us to be in the Rocky Mountain area, we were able to fill that void where they didn’t have the needed crews.”
At this incident, the team did “cold trailing.”
“Even when the fire looks out, it’s not actually out,” Cleveland said. “A fire can burn roots, under the ground, and they can burn for however long they can get oxygen and for the length of the root. We sniff those out, looking for plumes of smoke from the ground.”
The team combatted this fire mostly with hand tools as water is difficult to transport to the remote reaches of the steep forestland.
“We’re a type 2 crew module,” Cleveland said. “We’re there to do whatever they need on the ground. If we need to hold the line, watching into the green looking for embers, we can dig hand lines so the fire can’t get over that or we can do mop up.”
While New York does have dry spells and wildfire risks, Cleveland said the weather in western states is shockingly different.
“People can’t fathom that kind of weather happening,” he said. “A fire coming toward their town is a very scary thing for people out there. It happens every year now and it’s always a fear. The only way to stop it is preventative, to take the fuels away to slow it down. You can’t attack it straight on, unless it’s from the air, which they do as much as they can.”
Cleveland said the fires generate their own wind and weather patterns, growing and expanding “like a freight train.”
During a previous assignment in 2017, Cleveland fought a wildfire in Montana that spanned 30,000 acres.
“We were directly protecting 30 structures from burning down,” he said. “That was an awesome trip. We didn’t lose any structures and it was a hard-fought battle. The wind and weather really play a role.”
Cleveland hopes to continue responding to incidents across the country.
“Hopefully the program continues,” he said. “I’m ready to go anytime I get the call. You can go to places you don’t typically think about, like Alaska and Canada. It was a great experience.”
New York pays its volunteers to fire these fires.
“It’s not part of our job description but I’m grateful to still get paid,” Cleveland said. “The state gets reimbursed for every dollar spent with these crews by sister states or a federal agency.”
Back in New York
Fires, and even large ones, are a reality in New York, Cleveland said.
“We have our burn bans in the spring,” he said. “We have a fire season in New York. A lot of people don’t realize that. When it’s flush and green we have a lot of rain here and it’s very hard to burn our forests. But, in the spring, there are no leaves and a lot of fuels have had time to dry out. We can have large fires.”
New York bans open burns generally from mid-March through mid-May.
Not all fires in New York are actually bad, however.
Cleveland said DEC uses fire to burn off fields where invasive vegetation encroaches on the habitats of timber rattlesnakes, an endangered species. The snakes breed and feed in warm seasoned grass and the burns allow forestry staff to seed the fields with grasses that are ideal for the snakes.