Choctaw Forestry Department Helps Fight California Fires

By Kendra Germany-Wall

Record-breaking wildfires have been raging in California, Oregon and Washington since August. These fires have killed over 30 people as of Sept. 13, destroyed thousands of homes and buildings,and left a thick layer of smoke over most of the western half of the U.S.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 75 large fires have burned more than 3.7 million acres in 11 states. More than 30,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to wildfires across the country. Evacuation orders remain in place for residents near 23 large fires in the west as of Sept. 22.

Incident Management Teams (IMT) are called in to assist in the management of and response to local, state and national emergencies and natural disasters. These teams are made up of members of local, state, tribal and territorial entities trained to assist in these situations. Incidents are categorized as Type 5 through 1. Type 1 is the highest level of severity.

There are 16 Type 1 IMT’s in the U.S. Five members of the Choctaw Nation Foresty Department are a part of the Southern Area Type 1 Blue Team. Tom Lowery, Mark Morales, Scott Hamlet and Kendall Carpenter were dispatched to California to assist with controlling the wildfires.

When it comes to wildfires, it isn’t just firefighters on the ground. There are IMT members behind the scenes dealing with the overall operations, logistics, finances, planning, communications and safety. Fighting wildfires is a complex situation that takes an entire team to conduct. Morales, Lowery, Hamlet and Carpenter played key rolls in this operation, and are ready 24-7 to respond to incidents across the nation.

“We got the call on Aug. 19 to go to Sacramento, California, and assemble there. We all get up the next morning, we keep our bags packed year-round, and we take off for the airport and get on an airplane, which was probably the scariest thing we did the whole time,” said Tom Lowery, Director of Forestry.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, things were a little different than usual. The team flew out to California on a commercial flight, surrounded by others, potentially exposed to the virus.

“Everybody came through it fine. We had 1,100 people assigned to our incident. We only had one COVID case that popped up after that person had left the fire and got home. We didn’t have any active COVID cases on the entire incident.”

COVID-19 not only affected travel to and from the incident, but how the incident was handled as a whole.

According to Lowery, a lot of things were done virtually or remotely this time. Some team members were even able to assist from their home states of West Virginia and South Carolina.

Lowery explained how those working in California could work efficiently but still adhere to social distancing guidelines.

Some worked from their hotel rooms; those who were on the ground tried to stay in small groups and distance from each other when possible; and others worked in a veterans building in Willows, California. About 20 people worked in a large auditorium in Willows and were scattered out to maintain social distance.

Masks were worn, hand sanitizer was readily available, temperature checks were administered and distance was kept.

“We did as many of the functions of managing the fire remotely as we could.

All of our meetings were virtual meetings through Microsoft Teams. It was kind of strange,” explained Lowery. “You were in this big auditorium in a virtual meeting with 10 people, and five of them were in this auditorium with you. I could look across the way 50 feet, and there’s a guy I’m in the meeting with, but we’re sitting there looking at a computer screen. It was a big learning curve. That’s not the way we normally do things.”

Everything that could be done digitally was, according to Lowery.

“We did a lot of things this year digitally, that we would normally do on paper. It would have been faster to do it on paper, but we know that digital is the way it’s going to be, whether we like it or not. So, we encouraged everyone to do as much digital as possible. As you can imagine, an incident like that can produce a literal mountain of paperwork. But in three weeks, I signed three pieces of paper with an ink pen.”

According to Lowery, the IMT spent four days in staging and 21 days attached to the largest fire in California history, the August Complex in the Mendocino National Forest.

“Each of us played different roles, of course,” said Lowery. “Kendall Carpenter, Director of Forestry, he was on the ground out on the fire. He was in his section of the fire and stayed up there for the duration. He was up there for 20 days. There were very little amenities provided. Basically, for hygiene, he had a thing called a shower in a bag, which is a giant wet wipe. That’s how he stayed clean. He luckily had 17 changes of clothing. So, he could change out clothes almost every day.”

According to Lowery, it took four hours to get from base camp to Carpenter’s location. “Logistics were very difficult. Even sending hot meals – they weren’t hot by the time they got there,” explained Lowery. “Half the time, they would try to get them, and the fires would block off the road. It was very difficult to keep them supplied.”

Though Carpenter faced the grueling conditions on a mountain surrounded by fire, he will tell you it was “nothing out of the normal,” as he is used to being in situations that sound terrifying to others.

Mark Morales, served as the Incident Manager. The incident manager is in charge of everything on that team. Scott Hamlet served as the situation unit leader, who keeps up with statistics.

Along with being the planning section chief, Lowery also led the strategic operations group on this fire.

“That’s where we do the fire modeling and fire behavior,” said Lowery. “We can take a forecasted set of weather conditions and the fuels on the ground, and we can predict where the fire is most likely to breach our control parameter.”

Lowery admits that this experience was unique from any other incident he has worked on.

When it was time to come home, the Choctaw Nation employees on this assignment had a welcomed surprise.

“To cap it off, Chief Batton and Brad Mallet sent the tribal jet to pick us up in Sacramento. That was awesome! Instead of spending a day and a half riding in packed airplanes and sitting in airports with layovers and all of that stuff, we drove our rental cars up to the local airport, threw our bags on the jet, and 3 1/2 hours later, we were in Fort Smith. It was super and so unexpected. I realize there were a lot of factors that came into play. I just hope they realize how appreciative we were that they did that for us. Of course, we’re spoiled now and wish we could do that every time,” Lowery said with a smile. “I’ve been doing this since 1989, and that’s the first time they’ve sent the jet for us. It was great and totally unexpected.”

The Choctaw Nation Forestry team is back home for now, and hopefully getting the rest they deserve.