Cherokee Hot Shots assigned to New York City

Usually when the Cherokee Hot Shots leave their base at  Unicoi, Tennessee on the Cherokee National Forest, they are on the way to a fire. But this week they are in New York City cleaning up debris from two tornadoes that swept through Queens and Brooklyn leaving toppled trees and broken branches in city parks. The Hot Shots are using their chain saws to buck the trees so the debris can be hauled away or fed into chippers.

The Hot Shots are staying at the Fire Department center at Fort Totten.

Here is an excerpt from a September 27, 2010 New York Times article:

“We were pretty excited when we heard we were coming to New York,” said Matthew Gilbert, 30, the crew’s superintendent. “This is pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” It was the first time the crew had been assigned a job in a city setting.

Workers started about 9:30 Monday morning, clearing brush and downed trees from pedestrian pathways. Men wielded chain saws with 32-inch bars to dismember trees as old as 75 years, as long as 80 feet and as wide as 40 inches. Some fed smaller tree trunks into a wood chipper; others used axes to drive wedges into trunks before using the chain saws to complete the separation of the trunks into rounds.

They wore protective chaps lined with Kevlar, fire-retardant long-sleeved shirts, leather gloves, white hard hats with full brims — “bigger than construction hats,” one crew member noted — and were equipped with earplugs, radios, “bug eye” protective gear and boots with Vibram soles to provide traction.

In fact, the presence of people in ordinary clothes seemed somewhat disquieting to them.

“We’re used to seeing 10 extra people in a day,” said Brent Foltz, 25, a senior firefighter. “Here, we are seeing 10 extra people in a minute.”

Smoke jumpers in Central Park

This is not the first time that U. S. Forest Service firefighters have been assigned to New York City. Other than the incident management teams that responded to the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, smoke jumpers from the McCall, Idaho and Redding, California bases spent weeks in Central Park in 2005 climbing trees, looking for infestations of the Asian long-horned beetle. Climbing the trees is the only practical way to inspect the upper reaches of the mature trees in the park, and the smoke jumpers are trained and skilled at tree climbing so that they can retrieve their parachutes from trees if necessary.

And instead of sleeping on the ground at a fire, the smoke jumpers stayed two blocks from Times Square.

Smokejumper in tree central park
David Johnson, of Redding, Calif., in a Central Park tree. Photo: Joyce Dopkeen/ New York Times

Here is an excerpt from an article that was in the New York Times on April 29, 2005:

“A police officer said, ‘Now you’re just part of the Central Park freak show,’ ” said one of the smoke jumpers, Adam Lauber, 34. On a recent afternoon, he carried an oversize slingshot to launch a throw line into the canopy of a 75-foot London plane at the south side of the Sheep Meadow. “You get some people upset because we’re in the trees,” he said.

One smoke jumper, Dylan Reeves, 31, has found that some New Yorkers have a paranoid side. “Sometimes, people think we’re installing cameras in the trees,” he said.

And it does not take much to push some New Yorkers’ emotional buttons. Mr. Graham said he was screamed at by a man who accused him of killing a tree he was climbing. “He said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ ” Mr. Graham said.

When lunchtime rolled around, the smoke jumpers unloaded their gear in a park shed and cut across Broadway to the Time Warner Center. They took the escalator down to the Whole Foods market, fanning out among the multitude of salad bars and returning to the dining area with sushi and pizza. All five of them, who are staying at a Courtyard Marriott in Midtown, have visited New York at least once before.

“A lot of us are adventurous, and that applies to the city as well,” said Mr. Casey, who is 35 and married to a personnel clerk in Redding. “We look for adventure and finding different things that we aren’t exposed to back home.”

Mr. Lauber, who is single, makes it clear that he would like some of that experience to include more women. He said he did meet Cameron Diaz at Whole Foods while buying a few slices of pizza.

Even though scaling trees looking for bugs might not seem as dangerous as parachuting close to a raging fire, the men still take safety precautions. For this job, those measures reflect the urban setting.

They place bright-orange safety cones so passers-by will know something is happening above and will steer a safe distance. They have gotten to know every species of dog in the park and know to grab their ground gear when the dogs come sniffing around. “The dogs occasionally like to mark their territory on our cones,” Mr. Casey said.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.