90 years of Delaware Forest Service celebrated with return of wildfire crew
State officials celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Delaware Forest Service by welcoming home a crew of 20 firefighters at the Delaware State Fair Thursday.
Each of the 20 men and women were recognized by Gov. John Carney and Department of Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse for their dedication in battling wildfires in Colorado. Seventeen of the men and women were state and federal firefighters from Delaware. Three hailed from West Virginia.
Officials acknowledged the risks of fighting fires in the west and thanked the crew members for their service.
Newark resident Nikki Testa has fought fires with the Delaware Forest Service since 2001, going all over the west from South Dakota to Utah to California. She said luckily, the fires this year in Colorado were relatively easy to work with in comparison to others she’s seen.
“Although we were in elevations from 6,000 to 9,000 ft., the terrain wasn’t as tough as say California or in the Payette in Idaho,” Testa said.
Testa, 46, and the other 19 members of the crew, spent 16 days in Colorado where they helped contain three fires across the state.
In Colorado, Testa said, the vegetation is mostly smaller, whereas California and Oregon have large trees.
“So fires are pretty much fast moving. When we get there our tactics are slightly different than any other fuel type in the country. That’s why we went to three different fires, because we were able to get them out quicker,” Testa said.
She described the conditions in the Colorado wildfires as “very brown,” and dry — conducive to wildfires. Fires early July were rated a 3 on a 5-point scale in urgency.
The 20-person fire crew flew into Broomfield, Colorado July 8, where they waited for an order on which fire to go to.
Their first assignment was near Meeker, Colorado, where they tackled a 700-acre Wilson Fire that was started by lightning.
They then moved down to south of Rangely, Colorado, where they tackled two more fires — called the Grizzly Fire and the Dragon Fire.
It was an eye-opening experience for Dover resident and newcomer 23-year-old Hannah Small. She said the experience was not only her first one on the squad, but her first time out west.
“Where we were, we were first kind of in the high desert area of western Colorado — lots of box canyons, lots of sage brush, what we were controlling was a lot of the gambel oak that was on fire,” Small said.
She continued, “So you see a mountainside and if the fire’s raging all you see is smoke. You’re in that. It’s smokey, it’s hot, it’s intense, but you have a job to do.”
Small said she loved the teamwork, the adrenaline and the experience as a whole, and would do it again if needed next year.
Though it’s a bonding and fulfilling experience, it’s also a dangerous one, said State Forester Michael Valenti with the Delaware Forest Service.
“When we send crews out on wildland fires, they are entering into a hazardous environment. There’s just no way to avoid it. You’ve got hazards from the fire itself, from the topography, the weather, and our firefighters basically rely on their training to keep themselves out of harms way,” Valenti said.
The Delaware Forest Service's accomplishments in 90 years:
Some of the highlights Valenti spoke about while welcoming the crew home, include:
· 1927: Senate Bill 16 in the General Assembly established the State Forestry Department. They were put in charge of fire control, state tree nursery, and demonstration areas. The state appointed William S. Taber as the first State Forester. He served until 1970.
· 1930: 173 fires burned nearly 30,000 acres. Six fire towers were erected beginning in 1931 and the state established a system of fire wardens.
· 1936: The Gun Club property (844 acres) was purchased for $7,000 and became the core area for Redden State Forest.
· 1939: American holly was named the state tree.
· 1941: The 672-acre Tybout Tract was purchased and became the cornerstone of Blackbird State Forest.
· 1959: The first Delaware Tree Farm was recognized (O.A. Newton and Son).
· 1970: DNREC took over management of State Forests and fire control. The Delaware Division of Agriculture managed state nursery and landowner assistance.
· 1974: House Bill 770 gave the Department of Agriculture control of all forestry-related entitites and functions.
· 1994: State forestlands in southwestern Kent County were recognized as Taber State Forest.
· 1999: Delaware reached 10,000 acres in state forest land.
· 2017: The Delaware Forest Service now has 23 staff members including six field foresters and two urban and community foresters. Delaware now has more than 20,000 acres of state forest land, through funding from Delaware Open Space/U.S. Forest Legacy Program.