Caldwell forest ranger Ethan Matherly fought Alaska, Idaho wildfires

Sep. 13, 2013 @ 07:05 AM

When wildfires rage in the United States – and when local agencies can’t contain them alone – rangers and firefighters from around the country swarm in to help.

When flames sprung up in Alaska and Idaho this summer, one of the people in the swarm was Ethan Matherly, the N.C. Forest Service assistant county ranger for Caldwell County.

Matherly, who lives in Wilkes County, joined 20 other volunteers from western North Carolina who left to fight wildfires in Alaska early in August. He spent 10 days fighting wildfires sparked by an unseasonably hot, dry Alaska August, before leaving to combat fires stirred up by high winds in Sun Valley, Idaho. The Idaho fires eventually spanned more than 100,000 acres.

For 24 days, Matherly rose at 5:30 or 6 in the morning and met with the other 19 people on his crew to receive the day’s orders. The volunteers spent much of their time on containment – and on precautionary measures designed to protect still-unscathed communities. It wasn’t all fighting raging fires or “intense management” as responders to this summer’s wildfires in California might have seen, Matherly said.

“You see a lot of the bad fire on TV, the fires that are encroaching on developments and stuff like that out in California,” he said. “Especially in Alaska, a lot of the stuff we were doing out there was taking countermeasures to protect local communities. A lot of that is done there – precautionary measures.”

This was Matherly’s first time volunteering on a wildfire far away. Overall, the experience was a good one, he said. At the end of the day, it wasn’t the work that was difficult but the long stretch of being away from home.

The crew worked long days in remote locations. There were stretches of time without cellphone service.

“That kind of takes you aback because you don’t necessarily know what’s going on at home,” Matherly said. “That was probably the hardest thing, not knowing if everybody in your family was alright here. But you just took it one day at a time and did the best you could with it.”