Only you, along with some help from “Hoss” and his team, can prevent Mississippi forest fires

Published 10:09 pm Monday, May 29, 2023

Ranger Thomas “Hoss” Kirkley works for the Mississippi Forestry Commission fighting wildfires along with other duties. He serves Area 42 which incorporates Lincoln, Lawrence and Jefferson Davis counties but is not limited to those areas.

His career serving Mississippians actually began with the Mississippi Department of Transportation where he was a district supervisor. A couple of years ago, he heard Steve Williams, the area forester, give a talk on invasive grasses such as Cogan Grass.

Impressed with Williams’s knowledge, Kirkley became interested in learning more about the Mississippi Forestry Commission. A friend told Kirkley there was an opening in the area, and he applied for the job and got it four years ago. It helped him in part to accomplish a childhood dream.

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“As a child I grew up on a farm and I always enjoyed being in the outdoors. I actually dreamed of being a game warden,” Kirkley said. “This job is in the outdoors and is close enough without getting into the law enforcement side.”

He didn’t go to college for forestry but did earn an associate degree in electronic technology. The degree has proved useful over the years as he uses global positioning systems, OnX mapping and Google Earth to aid in responses to wildfires.

OnX is a very useful tool when responding to wildfires as the forester or rangers responding can mark where the perimeter of the fire is and tools in the app show acreage and landowner information. Williams quipped that the only thing OnX lacks is phone numbers to get hold of landowners.

Every morning, Kirkley checks the weather forecast due to the outside nature of his job and to make sure there aren’t any fire dangers for the day. Preventative maintenance is done on equipment and tools such as the dozers used to help fight wildfires.

He helps carry out timber sales, inspections and painting property lines on 16th section land and maintain fire breaks on 16th section land. Mississippi’s Forestry Commission manages 480,000 acres of 16th section land across the state for various school districts.

Rangers like Kirkley are on standby during working hours to handle wildfires and they are on an on-call rotation each weekend meaning once a month Kirkley could be called in to respond to a wildfire on the weekend.

March is the highest fire danger month and as a result crews are on call for the entire month. In the last fiscal year alone, MFAC fought 40,000 acres of wildfires statewide with 1,400 fires. Crews are dispatched to fires from a central office using the MSWIN system. Kirkley said protecting landowners and properties from fire can be very rewarding.

“It is rewarding to know your job does make a difference in the lives of landowners especially when you are successful in preventing their entire property from being destroyed by a wildfire,” Kirkley said. “One time, a husband and wife moved back home to help the wife’s mother … The couple had been home for a few months when a joining landowner was burning debris and it got out of control and started a forest fire. Young trees were destroyed, and the fire department could not get to the couple’s grandparents’ home which was across the highway from their parents’ home because of downed trees. MFC employees arrived to remove the trees, allowing the fire department access to grandparents’ home. All the outside buildings including a barn and storage sheds were destroyed by the wildfire along with some fire equipment, but we were able to save the house. The couple was so very happy that the house was saved. They could not quit saying thank you.”

Area Forester Steve Williams said when they are fighting fires, they preach safety first. Wildfires, and any fires, are different each time in how they burn. There is an element of unpredictability, so safety comes first.

“We can always plant more pines but not another person. We only have one Keller. People and houses are pretty high priorities,” Williams said.

Mississippi’s fire season lasts from the first hard frost in October to April. March is Mississippi’s wildfire prevention month. Public Information Officer Kevin Craft explained the fire season from October to April is due to the fuel load and trees are dormant. Windy days and drought only increase the wildfire risk.

Wildfires are fought using bulldozers, two-ton trucks hauling the dozers, water backpack spray tanks, hand tools such as rakes and flaps and drip torches.

Keller said people should keep in mind Smokey Bear’s quote “Only you can prevent wildfires.”  He also serves outside of fighting fires on an emergency response team. Tornadoes, floods or even the water crisis in Jackson brings in forest rangers.

In his spare time, Keller prefers to spend his time outside either hunting or fishing. He enjoys working in the garden growing okra, squash, cucumbers, or watermelons.