Published on 12/01/16

Rabun County 4-H'ers help western fire crews feel at home while fighting Rock Mountain fire

By Merritt Melancon

When you’re charged with coordinating the hundreds of moving parts it takes to fight a wildfire, sometimes things get so hectic that you don’t have time to eat.  

So, when a team of U.S. Forest Service wildfire management coordinators from out West set up shop in Clayton, Georgia’s Rabun County Civic Center in November, they were delighted at the smell of sausage and biscuits that started wafting through their staging area.

“When you’re working in this kind of stressful environment, people don’t have a chance to just run out and get something to eat,” said Kale Casey, public information officer for the Pacific Northwest Interagency Incident Management Team 3.

The biscuits were courtesy of a dedicated team of Rabun County, Georgia, 4-H Club members, who took it upon themselves to make the incident command team feel at home in Rabun County.

“It’s our home and our county that they’re working to protect,” said Huck Smith, a junior at Rabun County High School, Senior 4-H’er and Rabun County 4-H County Council president. “They were here to help us, so anything we could do to make their time here easier, that’s what we wanted to do.”

The U.S. Forest Service dispatched Pacific Northwest Team 3 – one of 17 Type 1 incident management teams – to coordinate wildfire suppression efforts for the 24,725-acre Rock Mountain fire that has been burning in northeastern Georgia and southern North Carolina this November.

The team is made up of 50 interagency fire specialists, many of whom are from Oregon and Washington.

University of Georgia Cooperative Extension 4-H associate Donna Young worked with Smith and his fellow senior 4-H’ers Sage Shirley, Katie Parker and Aaron Gerrells to supply the team with snacks, breakfasts and the occasional dinner to help the crew feel at home.

In addition to nutritional support, Smith and Shirley came in after school and on the weekends to clean up the command center. They’d sweep up, take out the recycling and generally make the space habitable for the next shift.

With 50 members of the incident command team stationed at the civic center and more than 1,000 firefighters coming in for briefings throughout the day, keeping the command center tidy was a necessity.

The 4-H’ers also collected the batteries that were used in the firefighters’ radios at the end of every day. Every firefighter must put new batteries in his or her radio at the beginning of every shift for safety reasons. This leads to a lot of partially used batteries lying around. The Rabun County 4-H’ers collected them and gave them to Toys for Tots to be distributed with battery-operated toys this holiday season.

In exchange for their help, the 4-H’ers heard stories about the team’s home in the Pacific Northwest and about past deployments to help after Hurricane Katrina, at ground zero following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and at the North Star fire, which ended up burning more than 275,000 acres in California in fall 2015.

“The entire team made it a point to stop and talk to the kids and to explain what their jobs were and share their personal experiences. They always called them by name and made them feel like a part of the team,” Young said. “They were great.”

For Shirley, who is also a junior at Rabun County High School and vice president of the Rabun County 4-H County Council, working with the incident command team was especially interesting because his Northeast District Project Achievement project is on environmental sciences and forest fires. The team gave Shirley many maps, charts and daily incident reports to help him with his presentation.

“Ms. Donna and I attended one of their daily debriefings where every area is covered, from the fire divisions to weather,” Shirley said. “This is a packed event with TV and radio media everywhere. At the end the commander said, ‘I see Donna and Sage have joined us. I just want to publicly thank them for what they are doing for the team.’ I was floored that he would do that. I am so thankful for everything they have done for us in Rabun County.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 30, Pacific Northwest Team 3 turned their command over to another regional team and headed back to their homes.

This won’t be the last time that the Rabun County 4-H’ers see them, however.

Rabun County 4-H seniors have started a fundraising effort to visit the command team this summer in Washington and Oregon. The command team was happy to give them a jump-start on their fundraising efforts. The team collected $787 in individual contributions to help make the trip a reality.

The donations were very thoughtful and needed, Young said, but the connections that the students made with the crew were the most valuable part of the experience.

“When this team arrived here … the smoke was so thick that you couldn’t breathe throughout the entire county,” Young said. “Their powerful confidence and abilities gave this county a sense that everything was going to be all right. We were just following the 4-H pledge by feeding them and making their stay here easier. It was the least that we could do.”


Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.

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