Five Northeastern Oklahoma A&M forestry students headed south this week to join in the effort to contain wildfires in Georgia and Florida.
Forestry and Wildlife instructor Michael Neal said the crew, consisting of Andrew Kirksey of Miami, Ryan Barnett of Gateway, Ark., Tyler Stewart of Miami, Charity Ball of Commerce and Jeffrey Ray of Quapaw, were dispatched from the Hot Springs, Ark., office.
“They are what is known as the mop-up crew,” Neal said. “They will go behind the firefighters and make sure the fires don't re-ignite.”
The NEO crew will be among a 21-person crew dispatched from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. The remaining crew are all from Oklahoma Native American tribes.
The rapidly growing fire, fed by fast-burning swamp grasses, had been reported at 68,650 acres Thursday morning. Though mostly well within the swamp, it was spreading to the west toward the town of Fargo, a small community of 380 about eight miles west of the swamp.
Firefighters didn't know the exact acreage of the blaze, which ignited May 5 by a lightning strike in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
But Mark Ruggiero, commander of the joint team battling the swamp blazes, said the fire had grown larger that the 116,480-acre fire burning since April 16 that was the largest wildfire on record in Georgia.
“Georgia was extremely helpful to us last year while we were dealikng with a devastating fire season, so we're very pleased to be able to return the assistance,” Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Terry Peach said. “The relationship among states when it comes to fighting wildfires is excellent and is an example of what can be accomplished when we all work together.”
Neal said with fires raging in Georgia and Florida, it's hard to say when the NEO crew will return home.
“They were dispatched on a 14-day turnaround, so the will definitely be there two weeks,” Neal said. “However, it could be much long depending on the situation.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs has provided all the necessities the crew will need to fight the fire, including food, transportation, personal protective equipment and bedding, according to Neal.
“I want to help out down there,” Kirksey said. “I'll fight the fires for as long as it takes.”
Neal said each of the students has a full understanding of the firefighting command system, fire behavior, safety hazards and human reaction during a fire.
Stewart, a sophomore at NEO, said that he is nervous, naturally, for what lies ahead, but he knows that this kind of experience will not be gained any other way.
“For the last few years, I have realized this is my goal,” Stewart said.
The students have been certified through the Department of Interior, meaning they are certified to fight any wildfire on federal or tribal land.
They have accompanied Neal and the BIA forestry department to local wildfires on land owned by Native American tribes. Neal said this experience is critical. Tribal firefighters are able to explain what they are doing to put out the fire and why those steps are necessary.
“First and foremost, the students have been taught that, while their mission is to put out the fire, their primary goal is to walk away unharmed,” Neal said.
Neal said when this crew is on the fire line they listen intently and understand the danger. “I am really impressed with this group.”
“The hardest thing will be the work itself,” Kirksey said. “We will have some very long days, but I feel prepared. I am ready to go down there.”