YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Staff Sgt. Steven Rifkin was looking forward to a little R&R after a blistering, 60-mile march at the Army's Ft. Lewis near Seattle.
But his feet are hot again. For a week he has tramped through Yellowstone's scorched forests, learning a brand of warfare that 12 years in the Army did not prepare him for. Learning, for example, to watch your feet.
"In some burns, you'll be standing there and your feet start cooking," Rifkin said as he stood guard by a park road, watching for flying embers.
Rifkin is one of 2,400 Ft. Lewis soldiers who have joined the fight against what officials say is the West's worst summer of forest fires in at least 23 years.
Crews Stretched Thin
Fires raging out of control in nine states have stretched regular firefighting crews so thin that officials are depending on unprecedented numbers of novice firefighters from the military and from civilian unemployment lines.
Most of these so-called "casual" firefighters, like Rifkin, have never fought a fire before, and they are being sent into the woods with as little as five hours of training. But fire officials say the newcomers have become an indispensable part of firefighting teams this summer.
Nearly 3.6 million acres have burned this summer in Western states and Alaska, said Mike Ferris, a spokesman at the federal Boise Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.
That is the most since the center was created in 1965, and it is nearly three times the area burned last year at this time, he said. Some fires are expected to continue burning well into October.
About 25,500 firefighters and support personnel are battling the far-flung fires, Ferris said.
Friday, the Forest Service said the number is probably closer to 30,000.
Normally, crews are shuttled from one state to another as blazes flare up. But local firefighting officials in many states are keeping crews close to home this summer, worried that more fires will break out in the persistent drought.
As a result, officials have had to scramble for extra manpower in such areas as Yellowstone, where 13 blazes have charred more than a million acres of the 2.2-million-acre park and burned several strctures and guest cabins around the Old Faithful tourist complex.
The Army started sending soldiers to the fires of Montana and Wyoming about three weeks ago.
Late last month, the Forest Service started hiring inexperienced firefighters through local Job Service offices throughout the West. About 1,340 of those casual firefighters hit the forests last weekend, Ferris said.
The employment agencies were swamped with applicants, many of whom were weeded out because they failed physical exams and aerobic fitness tests.
It is the first time that Ft. Lewis soldiers have been called on to fight forest fires, said Lt. Bob Brewer, an Army spokesman in Yellowstone.
"They're doing a lot of good, productive work together," said Sandie Hand, a National Park Service spokeswoman.
Receive Brief Training
The soldiers received five to 10 hours of training in fire behavior, use of tools and safety, Brewer said.
Additional training had to wait for the field. Before being allowed near active fires, the first wave of Army firefighters spent a week working "cold lines," hacking firebreaks through the woods far from flames.
But in recent days, as the fires spread and the soldiers gain respect for their abilities, the apprenticeship has shrunk, Brewer said. New recruits may spend only two days on the cold lines, he said.
The soldiers' safety record has been excellent, Brewer said.
The hefty meals served at the Forest Service fire camps appeal to soldiers accustomed to more pedestrian Army fare. On one recent day, Pvt. 2nd Class Terry Harp was still savoring the T-bone steak served up two nights before.
"I think this is the best I've eaten since I've been in the Army," he said.