August 20, 2015
By Andy Polhamus
A helicopter approaches a wildfire near Townsend, Mont., Tuesday, July 21, 2015. (Thom Bridge/The Independent Record via AP)
NEWFIELD — The borough’s fire chief has traveled across the country with more than 30 other New Jersey responders to help quell the wildfires running rampant in several western states.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection announced last week that 32 firefighters and three engines had been sent to Oregon, Idaho and Montana to help put down fires that have consumed thousands of acres, driven residents out of their homes and threatened the air quality for miles around.
“Our crews have extensive experience in fighting volatile forest fires, particularly in the fire-prone Pine Barrens,” said New Jersey State Fire Warden Bill Edwards in a DEP press release. “Our crews are top-notch professionals and will provide invaluable support, helping to provide some relief to firefighters who have been working around the clock to control these wildfires.”
The move is a response to a national request from the U.S. Forest Service. The DEP reported that wildfires around the country this year had burned more than 5 million acres by the end of last month, with 85 percent of the fires occurring in Alaska. New Jersey last received assistance from the U.S. Forest Service in 2012, after Superstorm Sandy.
Sean Riley, head of the Newfield Fire Department, gave a short interview on Wednesday while waiting for instructions at a blaze in Montana. He had been in the state for four days, and was set to start work on his second wildfire. The chief, who also works as an airport firefighter in Atlantic City and as a Newfield police officer, serves part-time on the state Forest Fire Service. Every year, the agency makes a list of firefighters who have expressed interest in being activated for out-of-state duty.
“You take a three-mile pack test where you have 45 pounds on your back. You have to cover [that distance] in 45 minutes,” Riley said. The pack test is just one of several rounds of qualifications firefighters must go through before they’re cleared to take on jobs of this magnitude.
When the U.S. Forest Service puts out the call for volunteers, firefighters have two days to respond. If they accept, the firefighters are sent to the scene for a two-week assignment.
“You know when you sign up that it’s going to be last-minute,” said Riley. “You don’t know when it’ll happen. It’s a matter of when the fires reach a certain point.”
This is his second time working with crews from around the country to extinguish forest fires. Last year, Riley fought fires in California. While crews from a given state generally stay together, it doesn’t take long for firefighters to develop a sense of camaraderie with their out-of-state colleagues.
“You work along with other states. Pennsylvania is out here Maryland is out here. My plane ride out here also had firefighters from Idaho,” said Riley. “When you get out here, you’ll work along with Montana crews, North Dakota crews. Everybody always gets along, because we’re all here for the same reason.”
Riley was stoic about the danger of the job, saying that it comes with the territory. The first fire he responded to had burned at least 14,000 acres, but was mostly under control by the time he arrived. Riley helped cool down hot spots that threatened to burst back into flames, and assisted with work he called “cleanup.” The second fire, however, seemed to still be under way.
“The job is dangerous as it is. It’s nothing out of the ordinary,” he said. “Nothing you wouldn’t expect.”
That danger, however, is impossible to ignore. The deaths of three firefighters killed battling wildfires in Washington on Wednesday drove home the reality of the situation.
Riley’s coworkers back at the Newfield Police Department released a special message for him on social media on Wednesday.
“Sean was dispatched along with 31 other firefighters from the state of New Jersey to help assist and fight fires in Montana and other western states, who have been hit extremely hard by wildfires this summer,” the announcement read. “Thank you for your service and stay safe.”