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Firefighters brave heat, rough terrain

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

EDINBURG -- Firefighters face rising heat and rough terrain as they battle a growing wildfire on Massanutten Mountain.

Lonesome Pine, one of the groups of firefighters on the scene, came through Flatwoods Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center in Coeburn. Job Corps is a federal educational and vocational training program aimed at helping people ages 16 to 24 learn skills and get jobs. Lonesome Pine includes electricians, plumbers, welders and carpenters.

The Point 2 blaze in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests marked the first time the group had to fight a forest fire.

"It's rough," Lonesome Pine member John Riley, of Washington, D.C., said Thursday night. "It's very rough. But we work together as a team. Get it done. It's all about cohesion."

Team member Joseph Bujak, of Cherry Hill, N.J., agreed.

Firefighters had taken a break for dinner prepared especially for the crews working the blaze. Timothy Maybaum, of New Market, a welder, was joined outside by members from South Carolina, Tennessee and other states. Maybaum and others signed up to join the firefighting team.

"Wherever a national forest is at, they'll send us to," Maybaum said.

Team leader Chris Barker, of Coeburn, said the group fights fires in national forests across the country. Each member goes through 40 hours of training then responds to wherever they are sent.

"We're making good progress," Coeburn said, but added the rough terrain makes their job tough.

Maybaum described some of the trails they had to travel as at a 45 degree angle and members carry heavy equipment for miles to reach the fire.

Riley correctly predicted Friday would be hotter than Thursday. Temperatures climbed toward 100 degrees.

Lonesome Pine were joined by a crew from South Carolina, along with a helicopter unit providing buckets of water from the nearby Shenandoah River used to help stop the fire from spreading. In total, by Friday 109 people had joined the firefighting efforts.

Battling wildfires differs greatly from tackling structure fires, according to Pete Irvine, of the forest service and the division supervisor of the Point 2 incident. As Irvine explained, instead of using water lines and other gear to extinguish the flames, firefighters tackle a wildfire by cutting off the fuel sources. Firefighters use leaf blowers and other tools to clear brush, leaves, shrubs and undergrowth from the ground around a blaze. Efforts sometimes require the use of chainsaws to cut trees in fire path. Firefighters use bulldozers to help build fire lines. Irvine explained the terrain around a fire can pose challenges. Firefighters in the case of the Point 2 incident had to hike three miles to reach the fire.

"What we're seeing with the Point 2 fire is steep slopes, rocky, uneven ground, high heat and humidity," Irvine said.

"Some fires have a way of sneaking around the rocks," Irvine added.

Firefighters have to remain hydrated but can only carry so much water to the fire line.

The crews had support behind the scenes. Law enforcement agents with the forest service helped to make sure people didn't enter trails closed during the firefighting operation. The agents also kept watch on the firefighting gear left by crew members away from the fire line.

Raechel Owens, a timber trainee with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service in its Glenwood Pedlar Ranger District in Natural Bridge, had not worked a wildfire prior to Point 2. Owens requires more training before she can go to the fire line. Instead Owens assisted crews by bringing supplies. She also put up signs warning people of closed trails.

"I was seeing that they had enough water and [I was] a little bit of a runner," Owens said. "But there are a lot of fires back home."

Owens referred to wildfires currently burning parts of Colorado where her parents live but recently had to evacuate.

"We're hoping that the house stays up," Owens said.

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