2011-03-24 / Local & State

Forest Fire Wardens Gather For Annual Training Banquet

Firefighters reminded “safety is paramount”
By Chanin Rotz-Mountz STAFF WRITER


Special awards given Monday evening included the presentation of fire warden certificates commemorating years of service. Bedford and Fulton County fire wardens honored by Buchanan State Forest staff were (left to right) C. Melvin Deremer Jr. (45 years, Bedford), Henry A. Hillegass (40 years, Bedford), Charles Swope (30 years, Fulton) and Kenneth Emerick (60 years, Bedford). Not pictured is fire warden Steve Behe, 25 years of service in Fulton County. Special awards given Monday evening included the presentation of fire warden certificates commemorating years of service. Bedford and Fulton County fire wardens honored by Buchanan State Forest staff were (left to right) C. Melvin Deremer Jr. (45 years, Bedford), Henry A. Hillegass (40 years, Bedford), Charles Swope (30 years, Fulton) and Kenneth Emerick (60 years, Bedford). Not pictured is fire warden Steve Behe, 25 years of service in Fulton County. A wildfire operations specialist headlined the special program at the Buchanan State Forest fire warden banquet and training meeting held Monday at Breezewood Firehall.

Brian Pfister, based out of the Division of Forest Fire Protection, opened the annual warden training program with an overview of the 2010 statewide fire season, which included a total of 574 reported fires. Those blazes, according to Pfister, burned 3,398 acres and were primarily ignited by incendiary means.

“It was a down year for fires,” Pfister stated. “There was not a whole lot going on.”

Railroad fires, however, were responsible for burning the most acreage, said the specialist, who noted 29 railroad fires burned 2,686 acres across the commonwealth. In addition, the largest fire to occur in the state last year was reported in District 11 on April 10 and resulted in 398 burned acres.

Moving onto the topic of Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) grants, Pfister said the funding program primarily remains the same as last year, but all applications must be submitted online. In 2010 local and neighboring companies receiving VFA grants were McConnellsburg with $3, 150; MMP&W, $7,500; and Breezewood, $6,649.77.

The maximum amount allowable over a five- year period through the matching grant system is $7,500.

For the current year, Pfister estimated the state will likely receive an amount approximate to what was awarded in 2010 through VFA – $666,553.

Touching briefly on the topic of the work-to-rest agreement, Pfister reminded the audience that saving a tree is unimportant in comparison to individual safety. “Safety is paramount,” he added.

In connection with the work to rest agreement, firefighters are required to rest eight hours on or near an incident scene before being released to travel home after having worked for an extended period of time or a maximum of 20 hours.

Pfister also took the opportunity to remind firefighters of the availability of water bombers or watercrafts to fight blazes. The local air tanker, which has a capability of carrying and dropping 800 gallons of water on a fire, will be based out of Bedford County Airport starting March 26.

Requests for the air tanker must be processed through the Buchanan State Forest District Office in McConnellsburg. Calls are prioritized, and the tanker may not be operated at night.

The cost to operate the aircraft has been calculated at $27 per minute and can be billed directly to any individual found responsible for starting a blaze.

Local fire specialist Ray Miller made reference to the use of air tankers while fighting the Whitetail fire that burned 32.5 acres last April in neighboring Franklin County.

“It was a cooker,” Miller stated. “It was really rollin’.”

Miller detailed how a unified command center was established to help reassign companies arriving on the scene into one of two sections. In addition to using ground forces and assistance from a specialized Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) team, two water drops from air tankers were also a valuable asset in combating the fire.

“It really came together ... . A PEMA crew was sent in. They can tap into resources we don’t have,” said Miller, who concluded the fire had the potential to turn into something much larger. It was deemed suspicious in nature even though the exact cause was never determined.

Given his 30 years of dedication and services to helping local fire companies and volunteers with training, Miller was presented with a special axe for going above and beyond for providing support.

Miller along with district forester Jim Smith and assistant district forester Bryan Wilford also made several special presentations of their own Monday night. Fire warden certificates commemorating years of services were given to Steve Behe, 25 years, Fulton County; Charles Swope, 30 years, Fulton County; Henry A. Hillegass, 40 years, Bedford County; C. Melvin Deremer Jr., 45 years, Bedford County; and Kenneth Emerick, 60 years, Bedford County.

Furthermore, John Ott was presented with a certificate for his fire prevention activities in 2010 through the Wardens Helping in Prevention (WHIP) program.

Foresters Steve Keiper and Jodi Skipper finished out the evening with a PowerPoint presentation on the history, staff and daily operations of Buchanan State Forest. According to Keiper, the forest known as District 2 encompasses 69,702 acres, with crews maintaining 242 miles of roads and 223 miles of trails.

”A lot of maintenance and work goes into that,” noted Keiper, who pointed out maintenance divisions are located in Chaneysville, Sideling Hill and Bear Valley.

Vistas and unique features mentioned include the abandoned turnpike with two tunnels now known as the Pike To Bike; CCC camps; a saltpeter mine; and a rustic, hand-built railroad arch. Meanwhile, recreational opportunities provided in the district forest include the upgraded all-terrain vehicle trails, the Kerper Tract with a 70-foot composite walking bridge and the newly acquired 581-acre Knobsville Tract.

Skipper tackled the topic of managing timber through harvests as well as issues such as gypsy moth defoliation, the emergence of the emerald ash borer and the high infestations of invasive plants.

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