Seven Lakes West resident Kim Rust began her career as a forester in the U.S. Forest Service about fifteen years ago. As a forester and Timber Management Assistant, Rust manages anything timber-related in the Uwharrie National Forest, including logging and tree planting.
As a child Rust knew she wanted to have a career that allowed her to work outdoors.
“I loved nature and outdoors,” she said. “I knew I wanted to go into forestry.”
Rust is currently working on longleaf pine restoration, bringing this native tree back into the ecosystem of Uwharrie.
Although the forest offers roughly 52,000 acres of land to explore, many locals do not take advantage of the recreational opportunities it provides including hiking, biking, hunting, and more.
“People don’t realize it’s there,” she explained. “It’s literally in our backyard.”
Although her work generally keeps her close to home, occasional situations take her work outside of North Carolina – fighting serious forest fires.
It is common for Rust help fight fires about once a year. However, this is the first year that she has been sent twice to fight fire.
“Usually I go on one trip per year…,” she said. “This is the first time going twice to the same fire.”
Fire fighting team sizes can vary from several individuals to several thousand. Fire engines and water crews try to contain the fire while ground diggers create bare soil to prevent the fire from spreading further. Security guards are also necessary around camp to assist with road closures and ensure safety from explosives in the camp.
Volunteers rotate in and out of camp, staying anywhere from two to fourteen days before heading home. Usually they stay in a mobile city and sleep on cots.
“Think of [the show] MASH,” Rust explained.
The campsite has a local kitchen caterer, tents, and a medical unit. Foresters are given a sack lunch, water, and Gatorade on their way to fight large fires.
Supervisors are able to use maps to come up with a strategic plan to put out large fires which can spread to be thousands of acres. Satellite phones or a COW (cell on wheels) is used to call in backup, meals, and supplies.
“It’s a pretty well oiled machine,” Rust said. “[The fires] go up pretty fast. [They can] progress like a ripple in a pond.”
After a fire is put out, grass seed is planted on the scarred terrain and straw is laid out to help prevent erosion.
“[We try to leave] minimum residual damage to the land,” Rust said.
This year, Rust was assigned to be a crew member on one of the helicopters. She helped to unhook cargo while flying in gear and supplies to crews out in the field.
With the number of years that Rust has aided in fire fighting, it is hard to believe that she was afraid of fire as a child.
“I had a fear of fire, but out of that fear came a healthy respect,” she said. “It’s pretty neat though. It’s a healthy amount of fear… There’s always something that can go wrong, and we plan for that.”
Although some of the most disastrous fires take place in the Western United States, North Carolina is still subject to forest fires. In fact, foresters were called to help fight fires in NC just last year in 2016.
“I think the thing to remember is that we think it doesn’t happen here. Last year it happened here,” she said. “People lost everything. It can happen.”
Fires can be caused by a variety of factors from dry lightning to camp fire irresponsibility. Big fires can last as long as two to three months.
When leaving a camp fire or open flame, be aware of dry/windy days. Ensure that all flames and embers are out, and be careful when dumping ash. There may still be burning embers.
“People need to be cognizant,” Rust said. “It can be a recipe for disaster if not handled right.”
Uwharrie National Forest is located at 789 NC HWY 24/27 East in Troy. To learn more about Uwharrie, call (910) 576-6391 or visit http://www.stateparks.com/uwharrie.html.