|Hookies Firefighter Mike Beckwith||California wildfires at
Los Padres National Forest
Being a firefighter isn’t for everyone, but it’s a calling for Tyrone’s own Mike Beckwith. The 41-year-old Blazing Arrow Hook & Ladder Fire Company (Hookies) fireman has been up close and personal with fighting blazes for 25 years.
Beckwith has spent 20 of those years fighting devastating forest fires all over the United States as part of the Pennsylvania Specialized Forest Fire Crew. He was one of six Blair County firefighters to receive a call of duty from the Division of Forest Fire Protection in Harrisburg back on July 11, to battle the recent wildfires in California that has burnt over 1,000,000 acres of land.
This was Beckwith’s twelfth trip out of state for fire assignments. He has fought forest fires in Montana, Idaho, California, Washington, Tennessee, Florida, South Dakota, and Wyoming. The assignments last for two full weeks, working anywhere between 12 to 16 hours a day.
California endured a lightning storm on June 8 that ignited fires around the state, and then on June 21, a second lightning storm came through that set over 1,000 blazing wildfires. In Pennsylvania, lightning is accompanied by rain, but out west the storms come in with little or no moisture, or it evaporates before it hits the ground – then producing dry lightning.
Beckwith flew out to California on July 12 from Harrisburg in a module of five fire crews; two crews from Pennsylvania, a crew from New York, and a crew from West Virginia. The group made a stop in Duluth, Minnesota and picked up another 20-person crew before landing in the sunshine state.
“The fire we were on was the East Basin Complex in the Los Padres National Forest,” said Beckwith. “It was the fire that started in Big Sur on June 21 by lightning, and it burnt from Big Sur to the Carmel Valley.”
The total acreage of the fire that Beckwith and 1,900 other firefighters were battling was 162,818 acres. One of the largest forest fires around Tyrone was 400 acres back in the 1980’s on Janesville Pike.
“The fire at Big Sur actually burnt to the Pacific Ocean,” noted Beckwith. “There was $85 million spent in fire suppression costs, but there was over $52 billion saved in real estate.”
Beckwith said that while he was in California, there was an overwhelming amount of fire agencies assisting in the wildfires. Agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Forestry, National Park Service, Bureau of Forest Management, and then local fire departments such as L.A. County, Ventura County, and Orange County.
The fire camp that Beckwith was in was represented by 23 states, plus a fire crew from American Samoa. The water to fight the fires comes from tanker trucks and helicopters. There were 16 helicopters working just at his site.
“Where we were at, we were about a half-hour from Monterey, CA, so we were only 30 miles from the Pacific Coast,” stated Beckwith. “That area is very affluent – Clint Eastwood has a large summer home there, and he was the mayor of Carmel Valley for awhile. There’s all kinds of very, very rich people with big homes.”
Beckwith gets paid the standard government rate for firefighters when making his out-of-state trips, but he says that it’s also “a lot of fun.” He has to pass a physical agility test every year, where he and other firefighters have to walk three miles in 45 minutes carrying a 45-pound pack. There are also federal classes like basic wildlife firefighting that he has taken, and in order to move up in rank, more fire training classes are taken every year.
This last assignment, he was a crew boss trainee.
“I was training to be a crew boss to lead firefighters, so I had 19 other guys with me that I was in charge of,” added Beckwith. “Those 19 guys by the end of the 14 days are basically new friends for life.”
The way the US Forest Service fights wildfires, such as the one if California, is very similar to how the military fights battles. The forest service developed an Incident Command System, and the military took ideas from the forest service – there’s one commander, logistics, plans, operations, and different categories under each one.
Beckwith said that a typical day for the fire crew he was on consisted of waking up at 4:30 a.m., eating breakfast at 5 a.m., then an incident briefing was held at 6 a.m. to provide information, and then fire divisions were set up to go over the plans for the day. By 7 or 7:30 a.m., the crews were on a bus heading to their assignments.
“We’d usually get done around 9:30 p.m.,” said Beckwith. “When you get back off the line, your first priority is either a shower or supper, depending on what you were doing that day – after that, it’s time for bed.”
One of the assignments Beckwith was involved in was brushing up a bull dozer line. A bull dozer would run through the woods and trees had to be cut back off the line ten feet, so he and his crew went in and cut brush back that distance with chainsaws.
“One day we had to hike six miles along a fire line doing work,” added Beckwith. “That’s what you do pretty much every day.”
Another tactic Beckwith’s camp used to control the fire was called a “burn out.” Close to 40,000 acres of unburned forest was burnt ahead of the fire to keep it from spreading. The method aims to burn up all the available fuel, so as the fire gets pushed towards that area, it’s black.
Beckwith noted that the land out west recovers in just a few years after a forest fire. Many of the trees out there depend on fire to spread their seeds. The trees have evolved because of all the fires and droughts throughout time.
As for the wildlife, Beckwith said where he was at there were mountain lions, bears, scorpions, snakes, and tarantulas.
“The wildlife move out of the fire area,” stated Beckwith. “There was two reports of mountain lions actually stalking the crews who were working at night, just watching the guys. By the end of the incident, they had five eye-witness sightings of mountain lions as close as 15 feet away from an engine crew.”
The weather and poison oak were also issues for Beckwith and the fire camp. At night the temperature would drop to 50 degrees because of the marine layer, but it would be 80 degrees by 7 a.m. Daytime temperatures would reach 110 degrees consistently.
Beckwith said dehydration was a constant issue, as well as firefighters like himself, having to get shots at the medical center because of intense poison oak.
“There was a lot of risks while we were there,” continued Beckwith. “A firefighter from Washington state was killed when a tree fell on him, and a fire chief from Idaho was killed in a vehicle accident – things like that do happen.”
Safety is a must while fighting wildfires, according to Beckwith. He said there are lookouts, safety officers, safety zones, and every day the crews had updated maps of the fire and satellite imaging designated for the specific fire being fought. Helicopters even take infra-red photos so that hot spots can be identified.
The California wildfire Beckwith fought was officially declared contained on July 27, meaning that it had a fire line the whole way around it. Certain green pockets may still be burning, but it will burn until the first rain or snow. He was back home this past Monday, July 28.
Although Beckwith loves what he does, he admits that the traveling takes him away from his family and friends for two weeks at a time. On his last trip, the location had no cell phone coverage, so he had no contact with his family for four days. The forest service brought in satellite phones eventually, but he said he unfortunately missed his son’s sixth birthday.
The locals in California were very supportive and appreciative of the efforts of Beckwith and the other firefighter. He said there were signs posted everywhere thanking the men and women, and in Carmel Valley a lady stopped their crew bus and gave them brownies and apples. Some locals even set up a table at their dining hall to offer the crews baked goods and desserts.
“It’s rewarding to be on a fire until it’s done,” said Beckwith. “I’ve been on fires where I left after our two weeks, and the fire is still burning months later.”