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N.H. firefighters help combat wildfires in drought-stricken Georgia

  • Forest Ranger Captain Bryan Nowell pulls a map from one of his gear bags at a forestry warehouse in Allenstown on Tuesday. Nowell of Goffstown and Engine Boss John Ross of Whitefield returned to the state Tuesday after battling wildfires in the southeastern U.S. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Forest Ranger Captain Bryan Nowell of Goffstown talks about battling the Rock Mountain incident fire located on the Georgia and North Carolina border after returning to New Hampshire on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Forest Ranger Captain Bryan Nowell pulls a map from one of his gear bags at a forestry warehouse in Allenstown on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. Nowell, of Goffstown, and Engine Boss John Ross of Whitefield returned to New Hampshire on Tuesday after battling wildfires in the southeastern United States. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Forest Ranger Captain Bryan Nowell of Goffstown points to a map that guided crews battling the Rock Mountain incident fire located on the Georgia and North Carolina border after returning to New Hampshire on Tuesday.

  • This map shows the area the Rock Mountain incident fire covered as of Sunday, with the red line deliniating the active area. —Courtesy

  • New Hampshire firefighters Bryan Nowell (left) and John Ross pose with the forestry engine that was used in Georgia. —Courtesy

  • Firefighters in Georgia battle a wildfire that covered as much as 23,000 acres. Courtesy

  • Firefighters in Georgia battle a wildfire that covered as much as 23,000 acres. —Courtesy



Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Two New Hampshire firefighters returned home Tuesday after a two-week stint battling the devastating wildfires tearing through the southeastern United States. Two more departed Monday to replace them.

At a forestry warehouse in Allenstown, Forest Ranger Captain Bryan Nowell of Goffstown and Engine Boss John Ross of Whitefield said they joined with crews from 23 other states to control the fires burning throughout tens of thousands of drought-stricken acres in Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina.

From their station in Clayton, Ga., which until this week hadn’t received any appreciable rainfall in more than 40 days, Nowell and Ross worked with 509 others to ensure no structures burned. Only one outbuilding was lost in their particular fire, called the Rock Mountain incident and located in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, Ross said.

But elsewhere, especially in Gatlinburg, Tenn., the fires caused thousands of people to evacuate, consuming a resort in the hokey mountain tourist city and prompting employees of an aquarium to leave the animals behind.

“It’s not a normal event,” Nowell said. “They don’t see fires like this.”

Extremely dry conditions were partly to blame for the spread of the wildfires, Nowell said. The streak thankfully ended this week, but it had been more than 100 days since the northernmost stretches of Georgia received more than a quarter-inch of rain, he said.

“Three months without any amountable precipitation was extremely dry, unprecedented, for them,” Nowell said.

The time of year that the fires started – some apparently accidentally and others suspiciously – was also atypical, he said, which meant crews from as far as Alaska and Hawaii were available to lend a hand.

Nowell and Ross were assigned to the Rock Mountain incident on Nov. 15 at a time when it covered about 2,000 acres, Nowell said. When they left, it covered 23,000 acres and was 40 percent contained.

Much of the expansion was done purposefully to establish a border where the fuel is already consumed, but a cold front that brought strong southwestern winds and no rain pushed the fire north into North Carolina.

Ross said from the time they left their hotel to the time they returned, the firefighters worked 16 to 18 hours a day.

“I slept all the way home on the plane,” he said, before and after the layover. “Both trips.”

The Thanksgiving holiday fell in the midst of their journey.

“The incident commander got up one morning and says, ‘I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but happy Thanksgiving,’ because he’s never been on a fire on Thanksgiving,” Ross said. “It’s kind of different, especially on the East Coast here.”

But thanks to the kindness of strangers, they did have a happy holiday. The night before Thanksgiving, a local church invited hundreds of firefighters in for turkey, stuffing, squash pies and pudding.

And on the holiday itself, Ross said they found a restaurant that was open and learned that a man sitting near them had paid their bill.

Nowell said the level of support from locals was outstanding. Firefighters found that everywhere they turned, they were being thanked for their efforts – or invited in for dinner.

“It was just unique to see that outpouring of support from the local community,” he said. “We don’t normally see that.”

“They just couldn’t say enough nice things to you when you’re gassing up at the gas station,” he said. “They’d be like thanking you, shaking your hand. It made you feel good that what you’re doing is really helping out the community.”

The two replacement firefighters from Lancaster and Milan flew out Monday for their own two-week stint.

National fire officials said Monday there were 44 uncontained large fires in the South, covering a total of more than 120,000 acres. Arson investigations are under way in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky.

 

(Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report. Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)