In 1908, more than 1.7 million acres of forestland were destroyed by fire. As a result of this devastation, the West Virginia Reform Law of 1909 was established to protect the state’s only renewable resource, the forest. Today the DOF is responsible for protecting nearly 12 million acres of forestland across West Virginia.
In Mingo County, the first line of defense is Forestry Fire Warden Ben Brock. Brock joined the DOF after serving as a firefighter with the Williamson Fire Department.
Brock said the official forest fire season starts October 1, but he sees the rate of fires start to increase before that date.
“The fires usually start in September,” Brock told the Daily News. “But the first of October is the official start of autumn fire season in West Virginia.”
The periods of each year between March 1 and May 31 and October 1 and December 31 are designated as forest fire seasons by the DOF. During those periods, burning is allowed only from 4 p.m. To 7 a.m. Persons who burn outside those hours will be cited, Brock said.
In 2008, the majority of wildfires was caused by people and their carelessness. People who allowed debris fires to escape into the surrounding woods caused 35 percent of the fires; people who deliberately set fires caused 26 percent.
In the fight against deliberately set fires, the DOF has a four legged weapon: a bloodhound named Jessup.
Jessup, and her handler K9 Investigator John Bird, look into fires that are suspected to be incendiary, or having been purposely set. Brock said Jessup helped in an investigation in Thacker.
“There was a fire there, and Jessup followed a trail three miles to a house where the people who had set the fire were found,” Brock said.
In addition to fighting fires, Brock trains in the off-season as well as educate young people about the dangers of forest fires. He works with Smokey the Bear, visiting Mingo County schools.
He is also part of the Western Wildfire Mobilization Unit, a group of DOF rangers who have received special training and who are prepared to travel to different parts of the United States to help fight forest fires.
“We can get called out at any time,” Brock explained. “Within three to ten hours, we may be gone to Alaska or Oregon.”
The father of six year old twin daughters Lele and Maxie, Brock says he loves his job.
“I enjoy being outside and helping preserve wild life,” he said. “I like knowing I can help.”