Local wildfire fighter awed by his challenge out West

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 7, 2001

Dressed in his firefighting clothes, Spencer Dixon shows on a map where he fought wildfires during the past two weeks.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[9/07/2001]Walls of flame are so awesome they must be seen to be believed, said a Warren County man back from battling one of 12 now-burning Western wild lands.

“There was a point where a lot of folks were speechless, just watching the fire,” said Spencer Dixon, 34 and a five-year veteran of the Mississippi Forestry Commission.

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He left two weeks ago as part of the 20-person Mississippi crew and used hand tools to help fight the Werner Peak Complex fire near Whitefish, Mont. The Mississippians were among more than 800 people from around the country deployed at Werner and Moose peaks.

The walls of flame reach a quarter-mile or more into the air and make a person seem awfully small in comparison, he said.

Firefighters worked from dawn to dusk cutting and pruning trees to rob the advancing fire of fuel. Several homes and camps were lost during the fire, but saving the others meant a lot to Dixon.

“If you can save it or even protect it, it made a difference to me,” he said.

He said the gratitude people showed firefighters for their efforts also made a difference.

“Sometimes you have, just have, to let it (the fire) take its course and do the best you can,” Dixon said. “Life and property are the first things.” But, he said, sometimes, the flames can be contained.

Nearly 64,000 acres have burned at the Moose peak fire, described as 5 percent contained.

Across the West, the number of large fires, acres burned, firefighters and support personnel have fallen in the past two weeks. Fires have dropped from 32 to 12, acreage involved has dropped from 331,000 to 203,000.

“We are definitely making some progress,” said Rose Davis of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The fires are a nearly annual phenomenon. Cooler weather and more rain is expected over several western states today that could bring some relief.

Crews from around the nation join late-summer efforts, sometimes with fatal consequences. Dixon said his group’s close call occurred when a road leading out of their camp was cut off by the fire, so their bus had to take an alternate route on a road bordered by flames.

“You could feel the heat, it was intense,” Dixon said. “If we would have waited a little longer we would have been cut off.”

Harold Anderson, spokesman for the MFC, said another Mississippian, Albert Daniels of Hancock County, who worked as a helicopter crewman in Montana, returned Tuesday. Two other employees, Rita Beckam of Philadelphia and Billy Rawls of Tupelo, left to be initial attack dispatchers for two western fires. Beckam went to Salmon-Challis National Forest near Ketchum, Idaho, and Rawls went to Winnemucca field office in Nevada.

In addition to the firefighters from MFC, one employee of Delta National Forest has returned from her two-week duty. Stephanie Allison, a 28-year-old wildlife biologist from Yazoo City, was sent to a fire near Dunlap, Calif. She returned a week ago. Of the other two Delta employees who were on standby last month, Ed Moody, a 27-year-old wildlife technician, left Aug. 28 for Livingston, Mont., as part of a helicopter crew, and David Lawrence, a 26-year-old forestry technician, remains on standby.

MFC crew members must pass a physical test that includes running two miles in 11 minutes and walking three miles carrying a 45-pound pack. Members of the crew also must attend individual fire studies, formal training and work on interagency wildfires.