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Democrat Photo | Jeanne Sager

Forest Ranger Gary Miller

He Ranges Far to Fight Forest Fires

By Jeanne Sager
LIVINGSTON MANOR — October 30, 2007 — Help is on the way – straight from Sullivan County to the California wildfires.
For Gary Miller, boarding a plane and disembarking in a fire zone is old hat.
The forest ranger with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) spent two weeks over the summer battling fires in Montana.
He’s fought California fires before, and joined a crew in Quebec that helped quell fires threatening to burn straight through Canadian homes. A resident of Livingston Manor, Miller is a familiar face for folks in the more rural sections of Sullivan and Ulster counties.
Patrolling the forests in his bright red pick-up, a broad-brimmed hat perched on his head, Miller is a ranger’s ranger.
He got the itch at 12 years old after writing a paper on forestry in sixth grade.
He put in nine years with the DEC before they gave him the chance to move into the ranger section.
That was three years ago.
About six months later, he was sent from his home in the Adirondacks to Sullivan County, stationed with the DEC’s Region 3.
Even with his family still back in the Adirondacks – wife April, son Taylor and daughter Dakota see him as often as possible – Miller has made his home here to be close to the job.
He’s focused his efforts on forming the Sullivan County Search Team, a band of volunteers who are trained in basic search techniques, taught to properly use maps and compasses and prepared for emergencies.
When a woman went missing from an adult home in Roscoe last winter, the volunteer team went out with Miller.
When the floods washed through Colchester in June, Miller was there – he was the point man organizing the search while volunteers helped the police and other emergency officials on the scene.
Miller’s also part of the law enforcement arm of the DEC. As a ranger, he patrols state lands on the lookout for trouble.
And when there’s a fire, Miller is there.
Around here, wildfires are better known as brush fires.
Usually no more than 50 or 100 acres of land is ablaze at a time, he said, although there was a 1,000-acre fire in Ulster County last year.
At times, the fires are set by the DEC – controlled burns are a common practice, especially in the Mohonk Preserve.
But nothing in his day-to-day job compares to the fires Gary Miller will face this week.
In recent weeks, more than 2,000 homes have been lost in and around San Diego County, Calif. – the state’s office of emergency management puts the number at 2,767 structures.
They’ve estimated more than 500,000 acres of land have been burned.
Seven people have died.
Still, Miller has volunteered.
“I like putting out fire,” he said with a shy smile.
The soft-spoken ranger, whose eyes light up when he talks about his kids or the bear cubs he cuddled on the job one day when they trapped their mama, speaks with quiet strength about fighting a wildfire.
“It’s quite the experience,” he revealed. “When I went to Montana, we were a crew of 23, but you get to camp and there were 1,200 people.”
Broken out into crews again, the groups were assigned a bus driver and a bus for their two-week stint.
Each day, the firefighters were assigned a task.
Donning NoMex, a fireproof outfit made of a long sleeve shirt and pants with sturdy boots that can withstand high temperatures, the firemen pulled on their line gear.
Among the tools on their backs was a fire shelter, a foil emergency “blanket” of sorts the firemen will unfurl and wrap around themselves if the fire becomes too strong and overtakes their position.
The thin material acts as a fire retardant, protecting the person beneath from the roaring blaze as it burns its way across the ground.
When they come to a spot that’s been burned through, Miller said the fireman call it “nuked.”
“There’s nothing left, no leaves or anything, just burnt stumps of trees.”
For days in Montana, Miller helped lay out hose.
Other days, he spent “digging line,” shoveling deep into the earth past the mineral-rich soils to the sand below.
“That’s the way we fight fires,” he explained. “The fire will burn up to that line and die out.”
There are successes against the fire – Miller will always remember standing, hose in hand, protecting a small cluster of houses, the flames fizzling as they hit the wall of water.
“We actually saved two to three houses,” he said proudly.
He expects to be fighting spot fires in California where much of the wildfire has been extinguished.
State officials are fearful that the Santa Ana winds will feed the hot spots left out in the center of the burned area.
Burning embers can fly as much as two miles, Miller explained, sparking another fire where they land.
Those kinds of losses are hard on the firemen.
When Miller was dropped in Montana, there were 17,000 acres burning.
“By the time we left, there were 35,000 acres,” he said. “One day they pulled us off the fire where we’d been laying hose, and it got burned over… six, eight hours of work we did was gone.”
But there are the days when you save something.
There are days when you see elk and mule deer who had the good sense to run – like a scene from the Disney classic “Bambi” – and you know nature will come back.
“You might lose one day, but you gain the next,” Miller said. “In Quebec, they flew us in in helicopters, and we stayed on that fire until it was out completely.
“You could see what we accomplished,” Miller explained.
The helicopter rides are rare. More often the firemen are trekking on foot several miles through the woods to the line of battle.
“California was tough last year,” Miller admitted. “You’re doing three miles to get to the fire, then you’re doing a 16-hour day.”
But he’s signed up twice since then to fight wildfires out west.
“It’s a place to learn,” he explained. “If we can go out there and put those fires out, when we come back here and fight these 50-acre fires, it’s like second nature to us.
“I wish people would understand fire is actually good for the habitat,” Miller continued. “When it goes in your structure, it’s bad, but when it burns in nature, it allows it to rejuvenate and there’s so much food for the wildlife.”

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