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When Paul Hense isn’t battling fires here, he’s guiding efforts to tame extreme wildfires

June 17, 2011

Punxsutawney Fire Department Chief Paul Hense appears in his gear as a prevention education team member, radio operator, communications technician and public information officer for the National Interagency Fire Center. Hense recently spent three weeks battling a huge wildfire in Texas. (Photo courtesy of Paul Hense)

PUNXSUTAWNEY — For anyone who thinks there’s no a difference between fighting wildfires and structure fires, just ask Punxsutawney Fire Department Chief Paul Hense, who will conclude his tenure as chief at the end of the year.

Hense, who works full-time for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Bureau of Forestry, recently returned from battling wildfires in Texas.

He said he was never scared while battling the blazes, but he was concerned.

The DCNR sent Hence to Texas April 17, where he was in charge of communications. That entailed keeping two-way radios programmed and keeping all firefighters under his jurisdiction on the correct frequency while battling the large dangerous fires.

Before a firefighter is permitted to fight wildfires, he or she must pass written and physical tests, during which the person must walk three miles with a 45-pound pack on his or her back in 45 minutes.

The first time Hense fought a wildfire was in 1990 in Idaho, where he was a member of the ground crew, which is charged with digging up a line used to keep a fire from spreading.

Currently, there are 80 Pennsylvania firefighters battling wildfires in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — a state currently undergoing drought conditions, which is why it has been difficult for forestry officials and volunteer firefighters to contain the hundreds of fires in that state.

So far in Texas, about 469,407 acres have burned so far.

Hense, a member of the Lindsey Volunteer Fire Company since 1972, said there are some major differences in fighting fires in Pennsylvania, compared to the other states that experience wildfires.

When battling wildfires, most of the work is done with hand tools and Indian tanks, or 45-pound metal water tanks that firefighters carry over their shoulders.

Battling wild fires is about containment, and drawing a line in the sand to stop it, rather than pouring water on the flames.

Firefighters use Indian tanks for fighting brush fires in Pennsylvania because there are large supplies of water to fill them, Hense said. But in other states, bulldozers and special types of trucks are used to stop wildfires.

He said that battling wildfires is dangerous work. So far, there have been two firefighters killed while battling the blazes in Texas.

“One of the reasons that the wildfires have flourished there is because Texas has very low humidty, Hense said. “If Texas had higher humidity, that would aid in extinguishing those blazes.
“It’s so dry in Texas that just a spark from a chain under a truck dragging on the road or starting a car in the dry brush could spark a fire,” he said. “It’s so dry that there’s a 100-percent chance for ignition. That could begin as a small fire that could grow into a large one in a matter of minutes.”

Firefighters from around country who battle these huge fires must be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

“I have my bags packed and ready to go,” he said. “I throw everything into the car and drive to the airport and park in the long-term lot. We often sleep in tents while we’re in the field, which is normally two weeks and could extend into three weeks.”

After a vacation for a few days, Hense’s name will return to “the active board,” which means he could be returning to Texas or another area of the country where wildfires have broken out.

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