Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Teams Go West, Fire in Eyes Missourians to Help Combat Wild Flames

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Teams Go West, Fire in Eyes Missourians to Help Combat Wild Flames

Article excerpt

As they left for the Western forest-fire front Wednesday, Missouri firefighters carried sleeping bags, backpacks and a healthy respect for the power and slyness of fire.

They also carried thoughts of Storm King Mountain.

A forest fire on that Colorado mountain July 6 surprised another team of firefighters, killing 14 of them.

"We don't want to become a statistic," said Gary Smith, leader of one of three Missouri firefighting teams that flew a chartered jet out of Lambert Field.

"We want to go out and come back," Smith said. "And we don't want to come back in draped coffins."

About 120 firefighters from Missouri and Indiana left for Boise, Idaho, where they will await assignment. Wildfires have surged unusually early this year across the West.

One of the Missouri crews was drawn from U.S. Forest Service staff at the Mark Twain National Forest. A second team consists of foresters from the Missouri Department of Conservation. The third group, also attached to the Conservation Department, comes from the Boone County Fire Wildland Firefighting Team.

Each team consists of about 20 firefighters, ranging in age from the early 20s to the late 40s; several women are among the team members. The firefighters come from all over Missouri. All volunteered for the western duty.

Department policy prohibits divulging the firefighters' hometowns.

Before the flight, the Conservation Department teams met at Rockwoods Reservation in west St. Louis County to check equipment and attend a briefing. They watched a videotape of the deadly Colorado fire, in which an unexpected wind shift whipped a modest brushfire into an inferno.

"The fatalities are very much on our minds," said Smith, a Conservation Department forester. "The lesson is that you do have to respect the fire. If you get complacent, you're probably going to get into trouble."

The firefighters wore yellow protective clothing and carried goggles, gloves and shelters made of fireproof material. They will be issued firefighting equipment when assigned to a fire.

Crew members will stay in the West for as long as three weeks, said Tom Ronk, coordinator of the Conservation Department teams. They'll come back earlier if the weather changes and fires subside. …

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