Okeechobee firemen help fight wild fires in other states

OKEECHOBEE — Lt. Earl Wooten and firefighter/paramedic Matthew Hopkins have been busy helping communities in Louisiana, California and Washington State fight wild fires in August and September.

Lt. Earl Wooten (left) and Matthew Hopkins (right) helped fight fires in Louisiana, California and Washington State in August and September, 2015.

Lt. Earl Wooten (left) and Matthew Hopkins (right) helped fight fires in Louisiana, California and Washington State in August and September, 2015.

Both were on vacation time from their jobs here in Okeechobee and worked with teams sent by the Florida Forest Service to the other states.

Hopkins spent eight days in the Kistachie National Forrest in Alexandria, La. as he worked with a team of 20 hand-crew members trying to cut fuel off from the flames. It was his first trip going to another state to fight wildland fires. It was called the Lafayette fire.

Hopkins got to use tools like shovels, chain saws, the Pulaski took, McLeod tool, and other equipment he thinks could help him when they have pasture and wildland fires here in Okeechobee.

Fire officials said this fire was likely started by a campfire.

“It was a neat experience because I’ve always enjoyed the wildland fire fighting and I just wanted to go out there and experience it. I enjoyed it. We started the first day at 5:30 a.m.”

Mostly grass and pine trees were burned and no homes were damaged.

Hopkins and others used the hand tools to clear about an 18-inch barrier from the vegetation. They would work until all the vegetation and fuel were cut out all the way down to barren dirt, which does not burn.

Hopkins said he enjoyed working with the other firemen and learning about wildland fire.

“It was a good trip out there. I had no complaints at all. The fire service is a brotherhood,” he added.

Lt. Wooten spent 14 days in Northern California fighting a fire in the Shasta Trinity National Forrest west of Redding called the South Complex Fire. It amounted to 20,000 acres and was started by lightning. He also went to a Washington state fire called the North Star Fire in the Colville Indian Reservation near Omak, Wash. This fire grew to 200,000 acres. At one point 2,000 firemen were fighting this blaze. It was believed that logging equipment were the cause of this large fire. Wooten was in Washington from Sept. 1-14 and had to work up to 16 hours per day to put out the flames.

Wooten is now a task force leader at these fires which means he supervises hand crews, saw crews with chain saws, and bull dozer crews. He said he has gone each summer to at least one fire.

“When things are okay in Florida the Florida Forest Service gives the okay and looks for firemen who will help out west. The wind and fuel drove us off the mountain one day, but we protected a lot of homes.”

Two firemen died in wildland fires in California this summer. The fires are in really steep country and California has been hit by a severe drought that has hampered firefighting efforts.

Wooten said the Washington fires included some cooler temperatures on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. The terrain included rolling hills, lots of grass and timber lands.

“It showed there are so many fires and so little resources. The fire departments are really stretched thin.”

Lt. Wooten will help teach a wildland fire class for his coworkers through the Florida Forest Service later this fall. It will include four days of classroom work and one day of field training at a site to be determined.

Both firemen were able to connect with nature as they fought the blazes, helped to protect homes and property and slept out in tents in the woods.

County Fire Chief Ralph Franklin said he thinks it is terrific that his firemen help other agencies when they can.

Florida Forest Service firefighters went out of state to fight fires. This is one of the photos taken while on the fireline.

Florida Forest Service firefighters went out of state to fight fires. This is one of the photos taken while on the fireline.

“It’s a passion for them and they look forward to it. I’m just glad we can assist them.”

He emphasized there was no cost to his own department and that these firemen use their own vacation time or swap time with other firemen to make these trips.

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