Michigan crews join fight against deadly southern wildfires

Ray Cole
A courtesy photo of Ray Cole (left,) who is a fire service veteran of 20 years.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A West Michigan firefighter is in the midst of the battle against deadly wildfires devastating three southern states.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources firefighter Ray Cole left Michigan six days ago to face a fiery maelstrom worsened by the fall season.

“The oaks and everything are in full color and it’s creating some issues with the fire, with the leaves that are burning, blowing around. (The flames are) jumping over the fire line,” explained Cole.

Clayton Georgia fire
A nighttime photo of the fire line in Clayton, Georgia. (Ray Cole)

Cole is among six DNR fire crews assigned to the South. Tuesday, his efforts were focused on the Rock Mountain Fire in Clayton, Georgia. Located about 45 miles southeast of Gatlinburg, it’s the largest of the 16 fires burning in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

“To give you some idea of the area coverage, it’s about 20 square miles, all mountain access. (It’s) very limited access with a lot of structures and a lot of subdivisions punched in the mountain,” said Cole.

This is the kind of fire Cole is trained for. The 20-year fire service veteran normally works in Oceana and Newaygo counties, but he’s a specialist in Wildland-Urban Interface and trained to handle both wildfires and structure fires.

Cole’s crew works from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. patrolling the fire lines and trying to keep them in check.

“(It’s) a lot of driving… (on) mountain roads, really narrow. The easiest way to describe it is two-tracks that wind up and down through the mountains. (There’s) very limited visibility,” said Cole.

The danger grows as night falls.

“One of the biggest safety concerns is all the dead trees and snags that fall during the daytime. But at night, it makes it especially hazardous because you can’t see them,” said Cole.

Thick smoke from area forest fires looms in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. (Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Thick smoke from area forest fires looms in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. (Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

Fire crews hope rain in the forecast helps them get ahead of the flames, which led to a mandatory evacuation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

“It’s pretty dry. They haven’t had measurable rain here in like a hundred-and-some days,” said Cole.

Cole is set to return to Michigan on Dec. 6.