Every morning, as Maine Forest Ranger Wesley Hatch and thousands of other firefighters leave their makeshift campground to battle a deadly wildfire in northern California, the little boy is waiting for them.
The boy watches the trucks drive past his house, which might need to be evacuated if the flames spread farther.
“He stands out in his little firefighter suit and waves every morning,” Hatch said. “There’s a reason I’m here.”
Hatch is one of eight Maine forest rangers and firefighters dispatched to the Carr Fire, which has been burning for more than two weeks. So far it has scorched more than 170,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes in two counties. The blaze also has killed six people, including two firefighters, making it the deadliest of the 18 fires raging across the state.
Maine regularly sends forest rangers to fight wildfires in other states through a nationwide reciprocity agreement. But the stakes are higher than usual in California this summer, and only the most experienced made this trip.
“They are telling me that it is very, very dangerous,” Maine Regional Forest Ranger Jeffrey Currier said. “We were quite selective in who we sent.”
The eight Mainers joined nearly 5,000 fire personnel from across the country at the Carr Fire. A map shared by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection shows 15 other states had resources in the state or on the way to fight the wildfires. Maine sent two wildfire engines out of its fleet of 35, and there are more than 375 other engines at the Carr Fire.
Many of those sent to help have been staying at a fairground that has been turned into a tent city. The contingent from Maine – four forest rangers and four firefighters – camps in the center of what is normally a racetrack.
The team starts the morning with breakfast and a briefing. Then they load into their two trucks and drive to the outskirts of the fire. They carry 20- to 30-pound packs with food, water and emergency gear. They work 16-hour days alongside a U.S. Army National Guard group from California.
Their job is to hold the fire line. They thin the undergrowth and cut back tree limbs. Those precautions help prevent the flames from climbing up the trees and turning them into torches that spread the fire with their windblown embers. They also chase spot fires and extinguish them.
“The fire itself does have a sound to it,” Hatch said. “You can hear it roaring or moving as it’s coming closer. We’ve been watching it.”
The mornings are quiet, Hatch said, but the afternoons are hard. The temperatures rise into the 90s, and the humidity is in the single digits. Those two factors create dry conditions that make firefighting even more challenging.
Nearly 50 percent of the wildfire had been contained by Wednesday morning, but Hatch said there is a long haul ahead. His team arrived last week and will work 14 days. After that, they will be replaced by another group from Maine.
“It’ll be needed, by the sound of things,” Hatch said.
To the Maine Forest Rangers, these experiences are invaluable. Currier said the state has enough forest rangers and firefighters to address any emergencies at home, even when a group is traveling. All of the state’s costs for a trip like this one will be reimbursed, and the crew comes back with fresh training.
“The beauty of that for us is that they return to Maine with excellent skills and experience that they can put to use in our role in Maine,” Currier said.
Hatch, who is 40 and lives in Old Town with his family, has traveled the country fighting wildfires for more than 20 years. He said he has seen the wide range of destruction in California this week, but he has also seen the thank-you posters and the waving residents, like the little boy in his firefighter costume.
“We can’t put it all out, but we’re here to do our part,” Hatch said.
Forest Ranger Wesley Hatch, seen here in Maine, is one of eight forest rangers and firefighters from Maine who are helping to fight the deadly Carr fire in northern California. (Courtesy of Maine Forest Service)