Puerto Ricans bring fight to fire
Folkston, Georgia – Martin Ramos will always remember that call: “Report to the Okefenokee”.
That was six years ago, when a fire rose to life in the middle of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and steadily grew. By the time the 2011 Honey Prairie fire had been extinguished, it had burned more than 300,000 acres.
It also sparked an interest in Ramos, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) fire officer assigned to the Service’s Vieques NWR in Puerto Rico. He and more than a dozen of his fellow countrymen came here in mid-April to contain this latest blaze. They’ll stay for about a month.
One recent morning, Ramos took a chainsaw to downed trees and dry limbs not far from the refuge’s helicopter-landing site. He and others were clearing the area of any combustibles … just in case. Fires can be capricious, prone to change direction.
“We’re protecting the valuables,” Ramos said.
Making memories, too. “I love fighting fires,” he said.
A veteran of the U.S. Army, Ramos joined the Service in 2007. He had a knack for combating flames, and so the former soldier trained in California. From there, he took the fight to blazes across the West – Arizona, Montana, Oregon. He also joined crews putting down fires across the Atlantic Seaboard, from Virginia to the Florida Keys.
But the fire here in 2011, Ramos said, was in a different category. Never had he seen fires that roamed across such a large tract.
“This place,” he said, “has a history of big fires. Everybody has an eye on it.”
This 2017 blaze has officials keeping close watch on the southern section of the refuge, where an April 6 lightning strike kindled the fire. At last report, that one-time tiny flame had spread to more than 100,000 acres.
When he and his colleagues got the call to Georgia, Ramos said, they didn’t hesitate. Perhaps they have a message for their peers who work stateside?
“We want them to know the Puerto Rican crews are good,” he said. “We bring a pride of culture with us.”
They also bring machetes. Puerto Ricans, Ramos said, are familiar with the long knife, used for ripping into vines, underbrush and other green, growing things. It’s another tool in the fight against a relentless foe.
A crew member unsheathed his machete, swinging it at a root. Thwack! A severed root popped out of the ground.
Ramos smiled. “That makes us different,” he said. “No one else uses machetes.”