Going Public: MDC Resource Forester Jennifer Behnken Called To Fight Wyoming Wildfires

Aug 10, 2021

Natural wildfires across the US are common in the summertime, however, more severe wildfires can become invasive and pose a threat to nature, animals, infrastructure, and entire communities. 

Throughout the summer of 2021, the US has experienced some of the highest instances of wildfires, and some of the most severe to date, specifically in the western part of the country.  

On many occasions, there are simply not enough local resources available in these areas to facilitate efficient and effective suppression efforts to help reduce the damage and threats caused by these large wildfires.

 

Emergency Helicopter monitoring the wildfires.
Credit Jennifer Behnken, The Missouri Department of Conservation.

Organizations like the American Red Cross have recently been urging individuals to volunteer to help aid and assist communities that are being  threatened, or actively harmed by wildfires. 

Other organizations like the Missouri Department of Conservation are asked to participate and provide staff to participate in many situations, including a variety of emergency response incidents.  These could be large-scale planned events, wildfire, flood, or some other extreme weather event that requires trained staff to operate effectively and efficiently. 

MDC offers firefighter training programs out of the Missouri-Iowa Interagency Coordination Center (MOCC) to members, and once necessary, individuals are dispatched across the country to help assist with wildfire suppression.

Jennifer Behnken, East of Thermopolis, WY
Credit Jennifer Behnken, The Missouri Department of Conservation.

  Jennifer Behnken, Community Resource Forester at The Missouri Department of Conservation recently returned from 3 weeks of wildfire suppression in Wyoming, alongside other MDC staff. 

In Wyoming, Jennifer worked alongside a team of 20 staff with various positions and training abilities including a crew boss, brush removers and chainsaw operators, firefighting crews, and squad bosses, or sub-commanders who help manage the team’s operation. 

Jennifer explained her main duty was to ‘secure lines’, or control the movement of the fires by creating a division between burnt fuel and where  fire has not yet rolled through.

MDC crew member on fire line at the Red Hole Fire, East of Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Credit Jennifer Behnken, The Missouri Department of Conservation.

  “What we did the majority of the time was monitoring after a fire has gone through and is completed, and that's what we call a mop up operation,” said Behnken. “To mop up is when we'll re-secure that line, we'll look for those hotspots of things that are still smoldering and trying to dig them out of the ground to make sure that we're doing our part to make sure it stays contained within.”

With the growing sizes of existing fires, and the constant emergence of new fires, Behnken said the team was even called on a new mission mid-suppression effort.

“Our crew was on three different fires, --they were smaller fires and they were mostly on sage and Juniper habitats,” said Behnken. “We did have one instance where we were monitoring one fire and watched another wildfire, far from power lines, in an oil field and it emerged right in front of us, two miles away, and we were the fire crew that was the closest available, we got in our trucks, and we moved into position.

Active wildfires in Wyoming.
Credit Jennifer Behnken, The Missouri Department of Conservation.

  Behnken said the three elements that cause their creation are fuel, moisture, and temperature.

“Out West, especially in recent years there has been a severe drought so there's been lower humidity and there's been less water on the landscape,” said Behnken. “And then there's been the accumulation of fuels, whether that's your trees, your brush, your grasses. Other things that can be very dry and basically create a tinderbox and create a situation where a fire can ignite.”

Night view of the Wyoming wildfires.
Credit Jennifer Behnken, The Missouri Department of Conservation.

  Wildfires can be natural, un-natural, severe, or even purposeful. Benhken explained they all warrant the same amount of attention and maintenance. 

“Someone leaves an unattended campfire, for example, which is where we talk about campfire safety and we're talking about our own human efforts,” said Behnken. “In any case they occur, they can be unprepared for, or a prescribed fire where we have resources and we have crews in place to be able to put on these burns for a directed management purpose.”

Behnken mentioned that everyone has a responsibility to act responsibly and safely even if wildfires seem unlikely to happen in their specific location.

“I think some of the things go back to Smokey Bear campaign, like ‘only you can prevent wildfires’ and it's basically creating an awareness of what we can do on our part to mitigate our own personal activities like paying attention to the weather patterns and when there's burned bad as our being respectful of them,” said Behnken. “ Sometimes it happens accidentally but just paying attention, making those contacts, and just when it becomes an issue, making those calls and making those reports so the trained personnel that have to come in and move in move in as quickly as possible.”

In her three-week trip, Behnken explained that the positions reflect an almost militant routine and demand, but that ultimately, it is an unforgettable opportunity that cannot be provided outside of a hands-on experience. 

Jennifer in front of a Wyoming wildfire.
Credit Jennifer Behnken, The Missouri Department of Conservation.

  “It is hard work, but I think the respect we get out of it, making sure that our work feels like it's a worthwhile effort, feeling like we're making a valuable presence in these activities, and receiving gratitude from people, -- it just makes it a good worthwhile experience to be able to go through,” said Behnken. “You get to see some countries you never get to see you would normally never be able to participate in, get some early wild experiences like that.”