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Local firefighter battles swift Western blazes

August 13, 2000

Local firefighter battles swift Western blazes



By KIM YAKOWSKI / Staff Writer


SHARPSBURG - Zeke Seabright works most days under conditions most people would consider intolerable. He routinely puts in 15- to 16-hour shifts in temperatures reaching 100 degrees and elevations of up to 7,000 feet.

As a Maryland Department of Natural Resources firefighter, Seabright works on the frontlines of wildfires throughout the United States.

Last week Seabright, 38, returned to his home in Sharpsburg after a 16-day tour helping save acres of woodland and buildings from the now 44,000-acre fire raging across Montana.

"We were right in the thick of it," said Seabright.

He oversaw teams of professional and volunteer firefighters from 18 to 60 years old, hailing from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio. They tackled fires in Bucksnort, Mont., and at the Cave Gulch Fire in the Canyon Ferry Complex.

Each crew of firefighters covered about one mile of fire being fed by brittle, rain-starved, sagebrush, cottonwood, juniper, Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees.

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Since the area was in the midst of a drought, the fires spread rapidly, helped by windy conditions, said Seabright. When he arrived in Montana, the fire had consumed 800 acres of nationally and privately owned land. The fires were a result of lightning strikes and in one area, the improper disposal of charcoal briquettes, he said.

After a six-hour flight to Montana, Seabright was given an assigned area and a crew of about 100 men and women who - just to fight the fire - had to get acclimated to the 100-degree temperatures, thin air and steep terrain. Each firefighter carried 30 pounds of equipment.

It was his responsibility to see that each covered their area of the fire effectively and safely as possible.

"We would go in and just do what we can," he said. Depending on the weather, firefighters either worked to put out the blaze or contain it, he said.

In hot, windy weather the fire easily spread. It was easier to put out when it was overcast with little wind, he said.

The exhausting work started at 5 a.m. and usually ended at 9:30 p.m. with several breaks for water to keep cool in the severe weather, he said.

"Visibility in the morning was poor because of the smoke. By afternoon, it lifted and you could see forever," said Seabright.

He stayed in a tent in a make-shift firefighter camp a mile or two from the fire, eating catered food and washing up in portable showers.

Firefighters on his crew received few injuries. One firefighter from Chambersburg, Pa., succumbed to smoke inhalation, Seabright said.

Despite being only a few feet from the flames at any given time, firefighters didn't use any type of oxygen tanks to help them breathe, he said.

"We just put a bandana around our mouths," he said.

The precaution may seem outdated but the tools for front-line fire fighting remain the same as were many years ago, he said.

"We still use shovels, axes and chainsaws to cut down trees and make breaks," he said.

Making a fire break involves cutting away brush to starve the fire of fuel. In areas where buildings were located, Seabright and his crew burned a safety fire around the perimeter, destroying brush to keep the wildfire at bay, he said.

Firefighters battling the blaze up close were crucial because they were needed to quickly make the most use out of the water and fire retardants dropped on the fire from planes.

Seeing the "wall of fire" was as impressive because of its power, said Seabright. He was also in awe of its volume, he said.

"When it was right in front of us it could be a deafening roar," he said.

Wildlife fleeing the fire was a common sight, he said. Mule deer, elk and mountain goats could generally run faster than the fire to safety in unburned sections of woods, he said.

In his 15 years with DNR, Seabright said he has never been burned fighting wildfires. He said he relies on his instincts and powers of observation to help him stay safe in such volatile conditions.

"You have to take notice if the wind is increasing or changing directions (to know path the fire is likely to take). You have stay on top of things," he said.

Even with the long, back-breaking labor involved in fighting the fire, Seabright said his days went by quickly.

"Your adrenaline gets going and the days move fast," he said.

Since his return to Washington County on Wednesday, Seabright has been catching up on his sleep and yard work.

Seeing his lush, green lawn at home was a quite a contrast to the ravaged earth and charred buildings he had been surrounded by for the past 16 days, he said.

"It makes me feel grateful for what I have," he said.

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