Hopkinton man returns from fighting wildfires in Colorado

  • The Green Mountain Fire is seen burning near the summit of the mountain.  Courtesy—U.S. Forest Service

  • A 20-person crew made up of natural resource and fire professionals from the east coast, mainly Connecticut, head out to prepare a contingency line in Red Canyon. Courtesy—Bureau of Land Management

  • Crews cut a contingency line through sagebrush while a helicopter drops water on spot fires along Buttermilk Ridge in Colorado. Courtesy

  • Ron Klemarczyk unpacks and shows off what he keeps in his backpack for the firefighting trips.  Jacob Dawson—Monitor staff

  • Ron Klemarczyk returned from Colorado on Monday where he was battling two wildfires as part of a crew from Connecticut. 

  • Ron Klemarczyk (left) and Forest Ranger Capt. Douglas Miner (right) sort through Klemarczyk’s pack to return items he borrowed from the state.  Jacob Dawson—Monitor staff

  • Ron Klemarczyk’s hard hat sits on a bag of supplies at the Forest Ranger station in Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown. Jacob Dawson / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/17/2018 6:10:58 PM

Ron Klemarczyk still remembers when he got his first call, the moment that sparked his passion for firefighting.

As a boy in Exeter, Klemarczyk all
but lived in the woods behind his home,
a world with thick brush and hidden passages. So when a brush fire broke out on a hill he knew all so well, he was the boy with a plan. Klemarczyk, then all of 11 years old, wanted to tell the local firefighters exactly how to proceed. His mother, though, urged him to let the grown-ups do their job. When the firefighters set off on their drive to reach the hill, Klemarczyk knew they were headed the
wrong way.

When Klemarczyk’s father came home, he saw the smoke and heard the buzz. So he explained the situation to his dad, who asked him to show him the way.

“Now, that’s the first time in my life my father had said, ‘Lead me,’ ” Klemarczyk said. The two beat the firefighters there and after helping them find the blaze, Klemarczyk was given a five-gallon tank and helped put out the fire.

“So now here I am after leading my father for the first time and giving the firemen directions how to get up there and they’re relaying my information over the radio,” he said. “And you’re 11-years-old, that’s pretty impressive.”

Fast forward more than 50 years, and Klemarczyk is still leading the way, only now it’s not in his backyard. The Concord and Bow forester, now 64, has spent a good portion of the past 40 summers working to beat back massive wildfires out west.

Klemarczyk, who lives in Hopkinton, was among the local crew that traveled to Colorado in late July, arriving back in New Hampshire this week.

40 years of experience

Over the 40 years and 24 trips to places like Colorado, California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and North Dakota, he’s noticed a lot of change. The 170,000-acre Marble Cone Fire in California, his first trip in 1977, was an anomaly at the time. Fires burning over 100,000 acres were not common back then. Today, that figure is often surpassed. The Mendocino Complex Fire currently burning in California is well over 350,000 acres.

Klemarczyk thinks climate change is responsible for the increased number of wildfires and their growing intensity. The warmer weather increases insect populations, which then kill trees. Low humidity and sunny days dry out fallen trees and dead brush, making them easier to burn. New technology, satellite communications and more rigorous training have all become central to helping firefighters compete against nature. But wildfires are more powerful than ever.

“The technology is not keeping up with the fires,” Klemarczyk said. Not only are the more intense fires proving difficult to contain despite new technology, but there is a shortage of firefighters. For the younger crew members, they have a hard time adjusting to being away from the modern world. Klemarczyk described how younger firefighters have difficulty going on these trips because they aren’t used to living in the forest while working 12 hours a day. He also said some suffer from “phone addiction.”

Physically, the toll on the firefighters is intense. Hiking serious elevations with upwards of 40 pounds of equipment in a pack, hot weather, long days, painful blisters and fatigue are part of the job description.

Klemarczyk said the age range of members of his most recent crew was pretty split. He said people who are 30 to 40 years old are seldom available. Most of the people on the crew are 18 or in their 20s, while others are between 50 and 70.

To keep his interest in the job, Klemarczyk said it, “gives me a good reason to stay in shape.” The adventure of working in the woods and the feeling of accomplishment are part of it, too. Klemarczyk has devoted his adult life to conservation. Working these fires and with trees in New Hampshire gives him the opportunity to protect what he loves.

One of his most memorable trips was at a fire in Yellowstone National Park in 1988.

“At night, I remember laying there. You could see starlight. There was a thunderstorm out in the distance with lightning flashing. There was fire glowing in another direction and then there was a full moon coming up,” he reminisced. “There was all this natural illumination and it was a spectacular night.”

Klemarczyk said his wife of 21 years supports his trips, but admittedly he doesn’t think he should be doing them for too much longer.

The recent scene in Colorado

The Connecticut crew first arrived at the Colorado Buttermilk Fire in late July as it raged within a canyon.

A different team had been working on the fire, but they needed help.

“They wanted us to secure the base. There were some farms you can’t see on the map. There’s a ranch up here, so we made a contingency line and put a hose on it because they did have a water supply from the ranch and if this fire continued to move up the canyon, we’d be able to stop it to protect the ranch,” he said.

After the fire jumped to the top of a nearby hill, the crew worked quickly to burn out the brush along a road to prevent the fire from moving any farther. On the other side of the peak was Black Canyon National Park. Klemarczyk explained that canyons create a natural channel for fires, which always follow the path of least resistance.

While moving positions, Klemarczyk assumed the role of lookout. He watched over the canyon to see where the fire was burning and how the wind affected it. He started to notice smoke coming out of an area that hadn’t yet had any reported fires. He said the steep terrain caused some fuel to roll down the hill. Fire likes to burn uphill, so this material only fueled the blaze.

“Noticing smoke building up and building up, and finally it started blowing up, so I told the crew to evacuate,” he said. “The half of the crew that was with me had to evacuate, get out of the canyon, because this thing is blowing up.”

Eventually, the whole crew had to leave the area because of the intensity of the flames. With air tankers dropping payloads of fire retardment, burning out more fuel and cleaning up the area, the crew was able to contain the fire enough so it would not jump into the next canyon. The Buttermilk Fire, caused by a lightning strike, had burned 748 acres. Over their final days in Colorado, Klemarczyk and the crew snuffed out any remaining smoldering coals.

Just as they prepared to leave, the crew got word of another growing fire in Colorado, this one named the Green Mountain Fire that was set at 10,300 feet in elevation. “They said, ‘Ok, we got a new assignment for you.’ and they said, ‘You guys are moving out tomorrow,’ ” he said. No one had been to this fire yet, so Klemarczyk and the crew began their “initial attack.”

Helicopters had been dropping water on the fire to help keep it in what Klemarczyk called “a big box” before being able to get boots on the ground. The plan consisted of constant water from the helicopters and if needed, making a contingency line along a nearby road to burn out the fire.

“We kept it pretty small and everyone was happy with that,” Klemarczyk said. The fire, which started from an unknown cause, burned about 53 acres.

(Jacob Dawson can be reached at 272-6414 ext. 8325, jdawson@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @jaked156.)


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