By Carol Lea Spence
When flames lapped at Kentucky’s eastern forests this fall, the University of Kentucky Fire Cats were on hand to beat them back.
There are plenty of chances in the state for the young firefighters to put their training to good use. Kentucky averages about 1,500 fires and almost 56,000 acres burned each year. The state has two fire hazard seasons—spring and fall. This year’s spring fire hazard season, which ran from Feb. 15 to April 30, saw 1,171 fires burn 35,613 acres. An abundance of rain in Eastern and Central Kentucky during the past summer produced a large amount of understory foliage—potential fuel in the fall fire season from Oct. 1 to Dec. 15.
This is the first year for the Fire Cats, made up of UKAg forestry students. Trained by the U.S. Forest Service and employed by the Kentucky Division of Forestry, the students are receiving “a brilliant opportunity,” according to UK Department of Forestry chair Terrell “Red” Baker.
“Not only do they get in a few extra hours and earn some money, but they get excellent hands-on training that could ultimately lead to career opportunities,” Baker said.
Chris Osborne, manager of UK’s Robinson Forest in the southeastern part of the state, is the Fire Cats’ crew leader. He explained, in hardwood-dominated Eastern Kentucky, fires usually run across the ground’s surface, fueled by leaf litter or logging debris.
“That being said, there are conditions and times that fire activity in Eastern Kentucky can be extreme. There are fires where you’ll have 1- to 2-foot flame heights, but we do have some grass fires and other fuel types that can create some extreme fire activity with much higher flame fronts,” Osborne said.
Fire Cat MacKenzie Schaeffer has been interested in fighting wildfires for a long time.
“I always thought it would be really cool to go out west and fight the big wildfires, but that’s a big step to take,” she said. “When they started offering this program, I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to find out if it’s something I really like and want to do when I graduate. It’s been an awesome opportunity, and I’ve loved it.”
The idea for the Fire Cats grew out of UK Forestry’s long relationship with the Daniel Boone National Forest, said E.J. Bunzendahl, assistant fire manager officer for the Daniel Boone. Since 2011, UK forestry students have had to take fire training as a mandatory course for their degree. The U.S. Forest Service facilitates the online version of the wildland firefighter training. Students spend between 40 and 60 hours completing the online portion of the class, which culminates in an eight-hour required field day that the Daniel Boone National Forest hosts.
When Baker saw how interested his students were in the mandatory course, he spoke with Dan Olsen about fielding a team. At the time, Olsen was director of fire and aviation management for the Southern Region of the U.S. Forest Service. Olsen brought Bunzendahl on board. She, in turn, called the Kentucky Division of Forestry.
With approval from KDF director Leah MacSwords, Mike Harp started making the arrangements to work with the UK students.
Harp, assistant fire chief with KDF, accompanied one of the squads on what he called a “somewhat complicated small 10-acre fire.”
“When I say complicated, it was because of the terrain,” he explained. “If I had let the on-site crews fight that fire, it probably would have taken two or two and a half hours to put it out. But with the additional personnel from the UK Fire Cats, we knocked it out in probably half the time. They really made a difference.”
In Osborne’s eyes, it’s a win-win situation.
“There’s been really positive interaction with these kids. They’ve asked good questions, and they’re engaged, and they’ve been hardworking,” he said. “So far it’s been a great success.”