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Safety: Midway crew found lessons in losing battle with wildfire

Smoke covering Highway 11 in Pickens County lifted for a minute, and members of the Midway Fire and Rescue wildland fire team saw a mountain glowing in the dark. They had just traveled nine hours in a tanker truck to fight this blazing monster.

“That’s something you don’t see every day,” said Midway Lt. Jesse Morgan, “a mountain on fire.”

Morgan and three other members of Midway’s eight-man wildland fire team, Lt. Peter Copeland and firefighters Adham DuMont and Ryan Matthews, were requested by the state Forestry Commission to help contain a wildfire that started inside Table Rock State Park and eventually charred more than 10,000 acres.

Human activity is being blamed, probably a campfire, but there’s no way to ever know for sure, Copeland said.

Once the woods were burning, conditions for the fire to spread were optimum: high winds, low humidity and plenty of dry fuel. Firefighters from the West couldn’t believe how thick the mountain laurel and rhododendron grow on these hills. Help from neighboring states was not expected. Fires in Tennessee and North Carolina were burning out of control, too.

Copeland said Midway’s team was created as a state resource. “If somebody in the state needed our help, we had certified personnel that could go up there and help,” he said. Other members of the wildland fire team are Capt. Jerry Liberatore, Battalion Chief Jeff Pifer, and firefighters Joey Anderson and Niki Crippen. All are federally certified through the Forestry Commission, though they do not travel out of state. Their capabilities include prescribed back burns, cutting trees, supplying water and clearing breaks with hand tools.

“There is a wide variety of ways we can be utilized,” Copeland said. Part of the team remains in the county, though members could rotate if the emergency demanded.

At Pinnacle Mountain, the Midway crew was assigned a fire break to keep clear. “Four men and a bulldozer for 3.7 miles,” Copeland said.

It took more than an hour to travel the length of the rough terrain in a Gator four-wheeler. “It was an adventure every day, cutting trees burning through the middle, fire shooting out the tops,” Morgan said. “Hemlocks were on fire. If we didn’t cut them down, they’d fall across the break.” In some thick woods, DuMont said, firefighters had to wait on burning trees to fall before cutting and clearing them.

The Midway crew used their pumper to pull water from the Saluda River and protect their break. They kept a space behind the fire line soaked in case they had to retreat.

On their last day, wind whipping down the valley between the burning mountains spelled trouble. Two members of the Midway crew, Morgan and Matthews, were cut off by fire without an exit. From their training, they knew this was a life-and-death emergency.

With wet bandanas over their faces, they jumped into the Gator and drove into the smoke. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” Matthews said, “trying to drive on this ledge with 80 feet of death on your left and 70 feet of nowhere to go on your right. There was just one way to go.”

They found Copeland and DuMont about 100 yards away and began reestablishing their fire break to protect the Table Rock Reservoir, the source of drinking water for Greenville and surrounding counties. They finished the day’s work and packed up their gear.

“The thing was still going, and we’re going home. That’s the hard part about it,” Morgan said.

It’s not in a firefighter’s DNA to leave a fire. It covered 3,283 acres when the Midway team members arrived and had spread to 5,421 acres when they left. “I didn’t like it because we lost,” Copeland said. “We had it. We were holding it, and the wind came up. We don’t lose. It’s not what we do.”

Copeland said the nine-hour ride home was very quiet, very humbling. “That fire put us in a bad spot, and we realize how important training is. We usually do this about once a year. We are doing our training next week and completely revamping it. We came back with a whole lot more information on how to do things better. It’s only a matter of time before it happens here.”

Rain in the mountains this week gave firefighters the upper hand. The fire burned within 20 feet of the reservoir, to a break cut by the Midway team.

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