Forty-two Kentucky Division of Forestry (KDOF) firefighters dragged their gear off the white school bus that had brought them home, back to the Southern Interagency Fire Cache in London, Ky.
They looked spent, many still wearing the Ferguson fire t-shirts earned by their recent weeks fighting one of the largest wildfires in California history.
The Ferguson fire, a wildfire in the Sierra National Forest and Yosemite National park in California, had pushed the team to their limits. It began Juy 13 and within a day had burned nearly 1,000 acres.A deadly and stubborn fire, it has burned for a month, consuming nearly 100,000 acres and killing two firefighters.
“It was very sad to hear about those (killed in the wildfires), especially the most recent one because they were in the same camp as we were,” said Kristian Pickering, chief forester and squad boss to Kentucky’s Ferguson crew .
It was really hard to fight fire in that kind of terrain, Pickering said. Two weeks straight of steep canyons. One-hundred degree temperatures. Gusting winds. No rain in sight.
“It can be overwhelming.”
Lem Johnson, one of Kentucky’s firefighters who made the trip, said it was an intense situation. “This particular fire jumped the highway, and burned up towards our camping area and cut us off from that, so we weren’t able to go back and get our gear and our clothes and our tents for a couple days, so we had to go to another location a couple hours down the road,” he said.
As of Aug. 13, it the fire 86 percent contained, according to the National Forest Service.
“It’s rewarding taking care of each other,” Pickering said. “I have been out (west) several times with state and forest service… you work really hard and have long hours and steep terrain and you’re sleeping in tents.”
Pickering’s job as squad boss of six firefighters, was to keep up moral and keep people safe so they could return home to their families. “We didn’t have cell service where we were, so that was hard. …So they had land line phones set up so people could call back home.”
Johnson said Kentucky was part of a crew that was protecting a subdivision and vacation rental area, protecting structures from burning and using backfires to eat up fuel around the structures to protect them.
“Everybody in California was extremely nice and thankful that we came,” Johnson said. “Everyone was approaching us bringing us water and food and just showing appreciation.”
“We’re happy to be home,” Johnson said. “It’s been a long two weeks. Camping out, working 16 hour shifts and sleeping in tents, we’re happy to be home.”