‘A wall of flames around 40 feet high was screaming towards me’
Even fewer still are Hampshire County folks who would describe that job as “fun.”
But, then again, there’s only one Forrest Moreland.
Moreland grew up in Augusta and graduated from WVU in December 2019, and he took a gig fighting fires with the Diamond Mountain Hotshot crew this summer in California.
Moreland explained that his job in California was supposed to start in April, but with COVID-19 kicking off in March, the start date was delayed.
Once he got out there, though, things began heating up, and fast.
“The first 2 weeks are what is called ‘critical 80,’” he explained. “We train, hike and get to know everyone on the crew.”
Moreland described one particular hike, nicknamed “M.O.”, which is 2,000 vertical feet and must be done in less than 60 minutes with a 45-pound pack on, and a tool or chainsaw on their back.
“It’s mentally taxing,” he admitted. “It also helps you grow quickly as a crew.”
After the first 2 weeks of training for 80 hours, Moreland and his team rolled out to New Mexico and Arizona.
Two fires in the Gila National Forest put Moreland and his crew to work, and after a few days of attempting to keep the fires separate, they were called off. In order to keep the blazes from continuing toward structures, they burned off a steep drainage and held it for 2 days.
No sweat, right?
“The days consist of working for 16 hours straight at a minimum,” Moreland said. “I enjoy things that get my heart pumping. Honestly, I was having fun with it. When the fire behavior starts to pick up is when the real fun begins, as long as it isn’t threatening anything or anyone, that is.”
The crew started out with 17 people, and Moreland said as time went on they got to know each other better, “which had a positive correlation with the production of the crew.”
While Moreland’s record shows him cool under pressure, he said it was “the most his heart had pounded all season” when his team was fighting the W5 fire in Lassen County, Calif.
“A fire of (that) size would usually have around 10 crews on it, but we were the only one,” he recalled. “At first, it was easy going. Humidity was high and fire behavior was low. A couple days went by and we had most of the fire secured.”
And then, the wind picked up.
Moreland recounted that his 5-person squad seemed to have their spot under control, and followed their squad leader to the backside of the spot, watching for flare-ups. He had spread out a bit from the squad, and as he was moving, his squad lead, Owens, from the top of the ridge told him, “Forrest, you need to get down on the dozer path now. Don’t stop until you’re clear.”
“I turned around, and a wall of flames around 40 feet high was screaming towards me,” he described. “The wind had picked up and was now torching everything in the spot. I put my head down and began to run, with the flaming front to my right.”
Moreland said his neck and face were stinging as he tried to shield them with his arm as he sprinted down the path and was clear of the head of the fire.
“I remember thinking, ‘man, that would have been cool to record if I would have had any time before it went down,” he said. “I was more worried about my crew members on top of the ridge, but (Owens) came down the other side and told me everything was fine up there. It was a fun experience for sure.”
That W5 fire would later blow up 7 times the original size due to lack of resources.
“We spent about a month on it, and on the last day contained it,” Moreland said.
Though Moreland’s heat wave of a summer has come to a close, don’t think he’s kicking his feet up. He’s going to be headed back to Morgantown in short order to start drilling with his unit, making sure he’s ready to deploy to the Middle East with the Army National Guard in a few months.
“I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, and doing a lot of recovery workouts before I start to train hard again,” he explained. “(This summer) was just an amazing experience overall, and I’m blessed to have had it.”