Canton conservation officers return home after battling major wildfires in Montana
Sunday, September 8, 2013 - 6:04 pm

By JIMMY LAWTON

CANTON -- Two Canton men are back home after fighting major wildfires in Montana where they hiked through woods at high elevations and battled blazing temperatures to extinguish the fires and protect homes.

Department of Environmental Conservation foresters James Canevari and Aaron Graves recently returned home from fighting fires in the 2-million-acre timberland fueled by lightning strikes, high heat and low humidity.

For Canevari, the trip was neither new, nor routine. This was his second time fighting fires in Montana, but he has also traveled to Alaska and California to assist with wildfires.

This time, Canevari’s job on the crew was a bit different. He served as a sawyer during the 18-day venture. His job involved felling trees to create control lines, clear drop sites for helicopters and trails for other firefighters.

"Sometimes we were out there for five hours, one time we were out there for 12 hours," he said.

Canevari, spent the majority of that time running a chainsaw, one he carried along with gasoline and other supplies as far as two miles through thick forests at elevations reaching 10,000 feet. Canavari said the elevation change took some getting used to and the high level of exertion made things tough.

Canevari said a mile hike through dense forests could take a few hours and estimated his load at 50 pounds.

“It’s not just a straight road you are walking. It’s up and down hills and you have to clear the way,” he said.

Further complicating matters were 90-degree temperatures and the requirement of flame retardant clothing, including long-sleeved shirts and wool socks.

Canevari said the real battle begins at the end of the hike, working just a few yards from the fire line. He and his crew sawed down trees to create a control line, the idea being that stripping the fire of fuel will stop it from spreading.

“We were on the initial attack crew for most of the time we were there,” he said. “I was on the first squad so we got sent to the very beginning of fires. You are right on the edge of it.”

He said the line is about 10 feet wide and must be cleared. Because heavy equipment can’t make it through the woods, each tree had to be sectioned small enough to be moved by hand.

“You want to get as close to the black as you can. You want to have the trees that are fire damaged fall toward the fire and you want the green ones to fall the other way,” he said.

Anyone who has run a chainsaw for a few hours knows the toll it can take, especially in extreme heat. Canvenari said the crews also had to combat smoke inhalation. The only protection from smoke was a handkerchief, which could be used to cover the mouth and nose.

“You breathe it in and sort of get used to it,” he said.

He said the smoke did provide some relief from the sun. It was thick enough to stop sunlight from reaching the crews.

“It actually kind of helps you out in that way,” he said.

Although the crews do not get much support from the ground engines, Canevari said helicopter drops helped slow the fires. He said he also cleared areas by chainsaw that allowed the helicopters to drop inflatable water pools, which were used by firefighters to extinguish the fire and keep it from crossing the control lines.

“They do a really good job of helping you out,” he said.

Canevari said he helped on several fire fronts during his stay and would not be afraid to assist in Western fires in the future. He said the ongoing California wildfires have depleted resources, which is why firefighters from other areas were called in for support.

Canevari said stepping into someone else’s territory presents a bit of friendly rivalry, especially when you are from New York.

“When you get outside of this area and you tell people you are from New York they think we are all from the city, so you have prove yourself,” he said. “It’s not easy for a bunch of guys from New York to step up into 10,000 feet of elevation. You get tired faster and you are out of your comfort zone, but we do it,” he said.

Canevari returned from Montana Sept. 3, but he said a bit of the adventure followed him home.

“It takes a while to get rid of the smoke smell,” he said.