Hundreds of firefighters cycling through Knoxville Mobilization Center to fight wildfires

Nov. 10, 2016: 100 firefighters based in Oregon arrived at McGhee Tyson Airport Thursday to help fight wildfires across the Southeast.

Dozens of active wildfires have prompted officials to activate the Knoxville Mobilization Center at the Hilton Knoxville Airport Hotel at McGhee Tyson Airport in Alcoa.

The mobilization center is serving as a check-in and staging area for hundreds of firefighters and suppression resources that are helping fight the on-going wildfires. 

“With the current drought situation in the south, it’s all hands on deck,” Jim Grant, Incident Commander for the Eastern Area Incident Management Team, said in a statement. “We have crews from the West Coast, engines from Michigan and Wisconsin, and a lot of single resources from all over the country. It’s these kinds of partnerships among the various firefighting agencies that allow us to get the resources needed here quickly and efficiently.”

Fires are burning an estimated 30,000 acres in eight states in the Southern area, according to the Eastern Area Incident Management Team supporting the Knoxville Mobilization Center. Most of the wildfire activity is in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina. 

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Catherine Koele is here from Wisconsin, with the Eastern Area Incident Management Team, helping to coordinate the firefighting efforts in the Southeast.

"This is a multi-agency effort, so it ranges from state, federal, Indian Affairs, even some county folks, you know, locally, so it's a huge effort," she told WBIR 10News Thursday.

People on her team are bringing together vehicles, tools, water and food at the airport, so crews that arrive can immediately deploy to regional wildfires.

"There's really no rain in sight, so it's a critical time, and we have a lot of outside resources here to help," Koele said.

Thursday evening, 100 men from five fire crews based in Oregon touched down at McGhee Tyson.

"The furthest east I've ever been is Colorado, so this is different for a lot of us," said Stephen Langberg with Pacific Oasis Fire Department.

Langberg says the unfamiliar terrain and vegetation will be a challenge for these firefighters.

"We just don't know the roads, the mountains are unfamiliar. We don't have trees like this where we're from," said Benjamin Dodds with the Pacific Oasis Fire Department.

Even with the learning curve, these crews are needed.

"The fire activity has increased to the point that our local resources have been exhausted," said Jason McHan with the U.S. Forrest Service.

McHan is based in Knoxville and says needing to call for western crews help is rare.

"Personally, I've never worked a mobilization team here where we're bringing western crews to us. It's always the opposite of that," said McHan.

These firefighters are the latest to arrive. Five crews arrived on the previous day and five others were set to arrive on Friday. In fact, crews have been cycling in and out of McGhee Tyson for some two weeks now, with more than 1,500 people from across the US deployed throughout the Southeast.

"It's a lot of money and a lot of cost to bring in these crews, but it's also very valuable," Koele said. "We can't suppress these fires without these outside resources because there are so many fires going on that the local resources are just tapped and they need the help."

She said most of these fires are human-caused and preventable.

"It ranges from campfires, wood fires - or debris burning, is what we refer to it as," she said.

All of these firefighters and coordinators are paid. That, plus the cost of supplies, transportation and lodging, make these preventable fires expensive ones for taxpayers.

Each firefighter meets a national standard for the work he or she does.

"It's a national qualification system," Koele said, "so everybody is qualified on the same level. You all know what you're ordering, what you're getting to get the job done."

So far, five incident teams and more than 50 crews from across the country have deployed to assist impacted communities in the region. More than 40 aviation assets and nearly 150 engines have been committed or are en route to aid ground crews and help prevent the fires from spreading. 

(© 2016 WBIR)


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