Originally published in The Weekly Packet, October 3, 2019
Brooksville forest ranger returns from latest firefighting stint
Battling forest fires in northern California wilderness
Maine Forest Ranger John Cousins and his crew wait for a helicopter drop during firefighting in the northern California forests.
by Anne Berleant
When Maine Forest Ranger John Cousins got the call, he clicked into action. Time to pull together everything needed to fly out to California and lead a mobilization crew of 19 rangers and civilian and non-civilian firefighters into the wilderness ablaze.
“The first thing you do is an inventory of your pack,” he said shortly after returning from nearly two weeks in Klamath National Forest, near Yreka, and Plumas National Forest to fight the 6,000 acre Walker Fire in Plumas National Forest. “And make sure all your bills are paid.”
This was the fourth time that Cousins, a Brooksville resident in his 18th year with the Maine Forest Service, suited up and showed up. Posting as crew boss with an available hand (as opposed to engine) crew since July, Cousins got the call September 8. By then, six of his crew couldn’t go, so he filled their spots on the fly, with an office mate, with a forest service laborer, and two rangers and two civilians from New Hampshire.
Civilians may not think of forest rangers as firefighters but Cousins said that is part of the job. “Maine forest rangers are statutorily responsible for the suppression of forest fires,” he explained, “and also investigation and enforcement.”
This was Cousins’ fourth trip to fight forest fires out of state. His crew first drove from Augusta to a Harrisburg, Pa., mobilization center by charter bus, a 12 hour drive, before boarding a National Interagency Coordination Center jet with five other crews. Their final destination was burning some couple thousand miles away. But for forest firefighters, what they see on the ground is a lot different from what civilians see on the nightly news.
“They show you the head of the fire,” Cousins said. “They always show you the [fire] that’s crowning, ripping across the top of the trees. We can’t be there.”
Instead, firefighters establish an anchor point near the heel, or point of origin, of the fire.
“It’s bullet proof,” Cousins said, because there is no fire burning behind the crews. Then the fire is fought directly and indirectly, with flanks on the left and right of the anchor point.
Usually the request is for a hand crew, like the one Cousins recently brought to northern California, but in 2011 he was part of an engine crew mobilized in the Osceola Forest in northern Florida. During their three-day drive from Maine, lightening struck in the Impassable Bay, turning the blaze into a 1,000 acre fire overnight. Blocking firefighters was a native vine, with 1-2 inch thorns. “It’s like green barbed wire,” Cousins said.“We couldn’t do direct attack because we couldn’t get to the fire.”
That wasn’t the only risks given in their Florida debrief: “If it grows, flies, swims, slithers or crawls, it can kill you,” Cousins recited. However, the dangers in California came more from the difficult terrain, he said, like 20-foot hedges of poison oak and near-vertical hills, and a lack of safety zones and deployment sites.
“Our line of defense was the service road,” he said. “We started a 10,000 acre back burn to shut down a 1,000 acre fire. Our [convection] column had thunder and lightning in it. It creates its own weather. It’s crazy.”
When Cousins faces a forest fire, he’s all logic and practicality. “For me, its not even an emotion,” he said. “I look at each fire and think, where should I start the anchor point, where’s the available water reservoir, the available safety zones and deployment sites.”
Off duty, the crews sleep, eat and shower in a kind of tents-and-trailers city, after 16 hours on duty. When the choice is between showering or eating, Cousins chose food. So the first thing he did when he got home to Brooksville was take a long hot shower. “I have never been more miserable physically: exhausted, hungry, fatigued,” he said. “Then I get home and I can’t wait to do it again.”