Two local men recently returned from an 18-day firefighting effort in southern California.
Missouri Department of Conservation employees Rick Falconer, of Linneus, and Phil Sneed, of Chillicothe, flew to southern California on Aug. 20 to assist emergency personnel in the battle against wildfires near Sequoia National Park. Sneed, who has lent his services to fighting out-of-state fires since 2000, served as Crew Boss of the 20-person hand crew. Falconer, who started in 2007, served as a Squad Boss Trainee.
“A hand crew is a typical firefighting crew,” Sneed said. “Our job was to do the hand work. We put in the fire line with shovels and other various fire tools. There’s also chainsaw work cutting down trees and limbs to create that fire line.”
Sneed said the fire line contains the wildfire by eliminating the fuel which helps it spread. This could include leading the fire to elements that will not burn.
“When you create a fire line, you're digging down to bare mineral soil, rock or water,” Sneed explained. “Your fire line will need to be wider if the fire is more intense.”
The crew battled two fires during its time in California. Falconer said the first fire measured roughly 400 acres, small by Western standards. The second fire measured around 1,900 acres. Both were believed to have been caused by dry lightning; lightning strikes that occur without significant rainfall.
In addition to fire line construction, the hand crews also completed mop-up and structure protection. Mop-up refers to the clearing out of any smoke or smoldering matter in order to make the fire line more secure.
“We don’t want any embers or sparks close to the line,” Sneed said. “The wind could pick up, change directions and spark it over the line.”
Sneed said structure protection is different from basic structure firefighting. Rather than working to extinguish fires that may have damaged buildings or homes, the hand crew uses a variety of methods to help protect these structures from the threat of wildfires.
“We might be tasked to go in and cut trees down around the house in order to make it safer and more resistant to the wildfire,” Falconer explained. “We also do a foil wrap on the house. It looks like a big sheet of aluminum foil that we staple on the house.”
The trees themselves are genetically designed to withstand some fire damage. The thick bark of the giant Sequoias serves as a defense mechanism against the flames. In fact, Sneed explained, the Sequoia’s cones are dependent on the fires for survival.
“The trees need a fire to come through, open those cones and let the seed out,” Sneed said. “In order for them to reseed, they need fire periodically.”
Page 2 of 2 - Sneed said conservationists will often set small, contained fires called ‘prescribed fires’ to maintain a healthy forest and prevent large wildfires by reducing the fuel load.
Falconer and Sneed returned to Missouri on Sept. 6. Sneed said the experience was beneficial for future firefighting efforts at home.
“The benefit these trips give to MDC employees is that we get to go out there and see fire probably in its most extreme,” Sneed said. “We bring that experience in dealing with fire, as well as that leadership experience, back to Missouri and we’re able to apply that here.”