Green Guide

Man's forestry work protects homes, businesses from fires

Posted September 2

— Instead of running from wildfires, Todd Ramsey travels thousands of miles toward them from his home in Bedford.

As a part-time wildland firefighter for the Virginia Department of Forestry, Ramsey is on call to drop everything and travel anywhere in the country to fight wildfires on as little as 24 hours' notice.

When a fire breaks out and he is able to take time away from running his own small business, the 29-year-old meets up with a team of other part-time firefighters and travels to the site for up to two weeks at a time.

While there, he and his fellow team members offer support to "hot shot crews," highly-trained firefighters who specialize in fighting fires in remote locations full-time.

Although part-time firefighters like Ramsey often do not get the spotlight, their work is necessary to keep fires contained.

"It is really important that we do a good job," Ramsey said. "We sometimes are not always given the most glorious tasks, but our tasks are very necessary to complete a fire. Without crews like us coming in behind the hot shot crews, it would be difficult to contain the fire."

Called a Type 2 Initial Attack crew, Ramsey and his crewmembers work to establish fire lines around the blaze's perimeter to prevent fires from spreading farther, put out smaller fires toward the end of the firefighting effort, and work to protect homes and businesses from damage.

Ramsey's interest in firefighting began when he came face-to-face with a fire on his personal property in Bedford at the age of 21. After he helped put the blaze out, he decided to pursue becoming a firefighter in his own right.

"I burned 15 acres of my own property down by accident," he said. "At the end of the fire, when the Department of Forestry and volunteer firefighters had finished suppressing the fire, I was approached by the forester of the county at the time, and he urged me to come join and start being a part of it."

Those interested in becoming a part-time wildland firefighter have to take a basic course through the Department of Forestry covering tactics for firefighting, safety and other knowledge needed to work in the field.

After passing the course, they must pass one of two physical readiness tests. In order to be eligible in Virginia, participants must pass the "moderate" test by carrying a 30-pound pack two miles in 30 minutes or less.

Those who want to travel out of state to fight larger fires in the west like Ramsey must pass the "arduous" test by carrying a 45-pound pack three miles in 45 minutes or less.

Every year, firefighters retake their physical readiness test and complete a refresher course going over safety, technology and techniques.

Despite the danger of the job and being separated from family, Ramsey said he enjoys being able to travel around the country and help people by fighting fires.

"We go into very remote places out west that very few people will ever see," Ramsey said. "It's impressive to see some beautiful country and true wilderness. We will be hours and hours away from the nearest road system. It's very humbling seeing how big our country really is."

According to Martha Warring, an Amherst County-based Virginia Department of Forestry senior area forester, the approximately 25,000 part-time firefighters like Ramsey all around the country are the backbone of the fire-preparedness effort the government has in place to protect both land and the residents who live nearby.

"The Department of Forestry is stretched kind of thin in terms of the people we have in each county, so when we have a fire, we need several more people than we have on a short-term basis," Warring said. "If it's more than we can handle on our own, then it's very important we have these part time firefighters to help us out."

Ramsey goes to as few as three and as many as 15 fires every year. When he is not traveling and actively putting out flames, his forestry business, Shiloh Land Management, does wildfire mitigation work.

As part of a government program, Ramsey's company receives grant money to help clear dangerous trees and brush away from property owners' homes to prevent fires from getting to their home in case of an emergency.

"We want to remove anything that would make a wildland fire worse in that area," he said. "We go in and we'll cut out dead trees and even live growth that would dry out during the spring and fall. We want to be able to offer it as a resource to homeowners that may be overwhelmed, especially elderly people."

Eight years after being inspired to fight fires, Ramsey isn't hanging up his tools any time soon.

"I have developed a huge passion for this," he said. "It has been one of my priorities in my life to pursue this and to gain more experience and move up in my abilities. So far I have been very blessed to be able to achieve a lot of things."

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