GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 9, 2013

Back from the western wildfires

Rockport man home after battling western wildfires

By James Niedzinski
Staff Writer

---- — ROCKPORT — Rockport native Millard Ring had friends in high school who were serving with the local forest firefighter department in Rockport.

He joined in 1994; initially as a good background as he planned to join the U.S. Coast Guard, but he’s stayed with it since.

”I actually found out I liked working the in the woods a lot more,” he said. “It gives me an incentive to stay in shape.”

Ring and forest firefighting colleagues from across Massachusetts did a lot more than stay in shape in their most recent deployment — which carried him far from Rockport. He has just returned from three weeks battling this summer’s catastrophic western wildfires, in this case, across Montana.

Ring, a squad boss ,was aiding with initial attack, sometimes a few feet from the flames that raged across Montana; the crew was not sent to any of the larger fires that were burning, but tried to prevent big ones from getting bigger.

“We were on standby for any new fires that came up,” he said.

Initial attack means they are one of the first firefighters to arrive; the crews are essentially on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For the most part, that means moving flammable items away from the fire or working with an engine or a helicopter to extinguish the fire.

The fires Ring helped extinguish were caused by lighting.

”At the time, it was so dry, they were worried about fires spreading to rapidly to be able to control,” he said.

The biggest concerns, he said, were the uneven terrain and trees, when the roots burn out they can become serious safety concerns; throughout his nine tours Ring has never been injured on the job.

He’s also been to Washington state, Quebec, Idaho, California, Alaska, Oregon.

“I like the camaraderie, I like the physical and mental challenge of it,” he said. “You’re always meeting really good people out there.”

Some of the primary concerns in Montana revolved around protecting houses or structures, in some cases just a mile from a working wildfire. The crew was there to support local firefighters, but a lot of the local firefighters and resources were already spread thin, Ring said.

Staying in the Montana city of Missoula carried added significance, Ring said, because it’s essentially considered the birthplace for land-based fighting of wildfires. Getting on a team there means you’ve really made it, Ring said.

”That’s almost like a dream job in the wild land fire service,” he said. “We kind of felt like we had to be held to a higher standard out there.”

As apart of the training for the Massachusetts team, applicants had to carry a 45 pound backpack three miles in less than 45 minutes.

The entire 20-member crew traveled to 12 different sites around Montana; Ring’s squad went to six of them, while the fires ranged from one quarter of an acre to upward of 250 acres.

Initial attack also means digging trenches around the fire and removing vegetation in an attempt to block off the flames, as helicopters would fly overhead to try and cool the edges of the blaze.

By digging down deeper into the dirt, helicopters can drop water or fire retardants directly onto the hot spots.

Usually a working tour is two full weeks of work, but Ring said 18 of the 20 crew members were able to stay another week.

The crew with which he serves is sponsored by the Department of Conservation and Recreation Bureau of Forest Fire Control and Forestry; it’s comprised half of state employees and half of municipal firefighters.

Despite being away from Rockport weeks at a time doing a deadly job, he loves the work and doesn’t get homesick.

”When you are with a crew, the crew pretty much becomes your family, and everybody on the crew takes care of each other,” he said.

Other crew members are spread out from Cape Cod to the Berkshires. He stays in touch with some of them when working for the state seasonally in Topsfield.

Ring added that the U.S. Forest Service treats its employees right, making sure meals are provided for. On days they are not camped on by the fire, they stay at hotel rooms.

But the job is far from a cake walk, most of the shifts are 12 to 16 hours he said.

When he’s not fighting forest fires, he’s staying in shape for them, being a recreational runner. He also serves on the ambulance department in Rockport, and works at forest fighter lookout towers as well.

Millard said time spent fighting forest fires is time well spent.

”It feels like it went by really fast, it almost feels like I never left,” he said; but the traveling does wear on him.

But while Rockport is known for it’s natural beauty, Montana holds more of the same, Ring said.

”Once you had a chance to look around, it was a breath-taking view,” he said. “We are working in remote areas, but they are also beautiful areas to work in — big sky country.”

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at jniedzinski@gloucestertimes.com.