On the fire line with the Forestry Commission

Published: Jul. 21, 2011 at 12:12 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 21, 2011 at 1:27 AM CDT
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HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - The Forestry Commission has many responsibilities, including land management and protecting and monitoring our woods and forests.

Another big part of the commission is its fire services. When wild fires break out in remote areas, it's up to these guys to keep it from spreading.

When they get up close and personal with these unpredictable forces, it's their training and gear that keep rangers out of harms way.

"It's like a monster really. It just wants to consume everything. Just respect it," said Mississippi Forest Ranger Eric Gonyea.

Extreme drought conditions have led to more than 22,000 acres of land burning in forest fires during the 2011 fiscal year.  The year before only saw 8,000 burned.

"This year's been very active compared to the last probably four years or so," said Mike Gray of the Mississippi Forestry Commission.

Each forestry fire fighter goes through basic fire fighting training where they learn about gear, fire behavior and weather conditions.

However, a wildfire requires a different approach than structure fires and comes with its own set of dangers.

"The main difference is when you get to a fire, we may have to take a bulldozer half a mile to a mile into the woods. We don't have the privilege of being able to pull right up in front of a residence and being able to fight it," said Gray.

Fire fighters wear flame resistant clothing and thick leather boots.  The rest of their safety gear includes a radio, hardhat and harness to carry supplies.

The main tools for fighting a wild fire are a tractor plow unit and shove which are used to dig containment lines to prevent fires from spreading.  The other tool, is fire itself. Rangers use torches to burn up potential fuel.

"That fire has thing to do and that's to eat food. When you're out there you have to be constantly wondering, where is it going to go, what's it going to eat?" said Gonyea.

Another piece of gear is one fire fighters hope to never use.  It's thin piece of fabric made from Kevlar and Fiberglass that creates a shelter against fire.

Rangers train to find a safe place and deploy the shelters in 25 seconds or less.  The shelters can withstand 500 degrees of direct heat, and there have been cases where a ranger had to stay in the tent like shelter for hours on end.

When they have to be used, the shelters can be the difference between life and death in close call situations.

"The wind changed direction and caused a head fire upon us. The fire got close to the tractor unit, and before we could get it unstuck. Operator had to bail from there," said Gonyea.  "I tried to go back up the line, but by then the fire had already approached on the fire line and cut off my exit and safety zone. We just had to hunker down."

Luckily the fire blew around them, and the team was able to escape unharmed.

"You kind of appreciate things at the end of the day when you come across something like that," said Gonyea.

To help with preventing fires, the forestry commission can aid homeowners in making their property fire wise. To find out how to be fire wise, click here.

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