Wayne Post
  • Montana wildfires a ‘shock to the system’

  • Jacob Powell took a class on fighting wildfires at Finger Lakes Community College on a whim a few years ago. He never thought it would one day take him to a burning mountainside halfway across the country.

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  • Jacob Powell took a class on fighting wildfires at Finger Lakes Community College on a whim a few years ago. He never thought it would one day take him to a burning mountainside halfway across the country.
    Powell and fellow Newark firefighter Doug Velte recently spent two weeks fighting wildfires that ravaged parts of Montana. They were part of a paid crew assembled for the federal government by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
    The duo spent much of their time extinguishing hot spots and inspecting fire boundary lines. Wearing nearly 50-pound backpacks, they walked countless miles and scaled steep terrain.
    “The last couple days we were on our hands and knees going up the side of the mountain,” said Powell, 23, of Newark. “Everything was burned - there were just a few trees. We were just trying not to slide.”
    The physical demands of the job “was definitely a shock to the system,” said Powell, but, he added, “it’s a unique experience -- you get to see parts of the country you probably wouldn’t if you went there on a vacation.”
    Powell and Velte were part of a 20-member crew assembled in mid-August. Firefighters are dispatched through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Forest Service. The agreement allows for the sharing and dispatching of firefighters throughout the country.
    Upon arrival the crew was assigned to the 9,863-acre West Garceau Fire in Polson, Mont. and later assigned to the 585-acre Elevation Mountain Fire in Greenough, Mont.
    Newark Fire Chief Michael Colacino commended Powell and Velte for their work.
    “They are both very active in the Newark Fire Department,“ he said. “They are both very dedicated to the community.“
    Powell has been with the Newark Fire Department for four years and this past spring was named a first lieutenant. He works as a custodian for the Newark Central School District.
    Velte, a father and grandfather, is a lieutenant with the fire department. He is a past chief and has been active for 35 years.
    “Firefighting has been in the family blood for years,“ said Velte. His grandfather was a paid firefighter in the 1940s and his father and brother both served as chief. His son, Kevin, is also part of the department.
    Firefighters need special training and certification from the state to be summoned to wildfires. Powell first received his certification - which he learned about in the FLCC class - about three years ago. But he wasn’t asked to a fire until this past August, when he and Velte were invited to help in the Montana effort.
    Velte, however, has been battling blazes across the country since 1989. He became certified after he heard a call over the fire department radio back in 1988 for help with the wildfires that consumed almost 800,000 acres in Yellowstone National Park.
    Page 2 of 2 - Velte was trained and certified but, just as his crew was about to be deployed to Yellowstone, the trip was called off because snowfall brought the fire under control.
    “But, we all got trained and I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Velte.
    All told he’s been to 14 wildfires in most every western state except California. The worst was in 2003 in Montana, about 30 miles from where he and Powell were stationed. His crew had a half-acre fire under control when the weather quickly changed and it spread “to about 900 acres,” he said. Three years earlier, while fighting a fire in Colorado, Velte broke his ankle.
    Powell said he would have liked to have seen more flames during the Montana trip.
    But, he knows if he continues with the program as Velte has he will get his chance.
    About the Montana wildfires
    More than 1 million acres were scorched across Montana in its 2012 wildfire season which officially ended this past week. Officials with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said it was an especially difficult season because of the hot, dry conditions.

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