- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. (AP) - A part-time job led to a full-time career for Casey County native John Wethington, fighting for the wildlands of Kentucky and the United States.

Wethington, who is rounding out 19 years as a forest ranger for the Kentucky Division of Forestry, started as a part-time employee assisting the then-forest ranger for Casey County.

Wethington had graduated with a degree in turf management from Western Kentucky University. At the time he started working part-time, he and wife Tina ran a country store on Ky. 78 in the county.

“The county ranger then came in the store. He said he needed help part-time and thought of me,” said Wethington.

Wethington worked for a year and a half before the ranger decided to retire, opening a full-time position. “I kind of fell into it, I guess.”

Over the years, the number of rangers has decreased while coverage areas have increased. Wethington now monitors Casey, Lincoln and Taylor counties, with his office in Campbellsville.

The day-to-day duties include working with logging jobs under the Kentucky Forest Conservation Act, participating in events with schools, including visits to the schools with Smokey Bear, for presentations and career days.

“The logging has really given us a lot more to do,” he said.

The act was established in 1998 to maintain water quality and require loggers to use best practices when harvesting trees.

But a big part of Wethington’s job is wildland fire suppression, or fighting wildfires. Forest rangers and others with the Kentucky Division of Forestry can spend several weeks at a time fighting fires across the United States, going where they are needed.

“I guess that would be my favorite part of it, just getting to travel,” he said.

Wethington has been to Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Washington, California, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Montana, all while fighting wildland fires.

When a wildfire breaks out and the call for assistance is made, responders like Wethington have about 24 hours, sometimes less, to be ready to leave.

Members are placed on rotation schedules, and keep a bag packed in preparation, he said.

“You have a burn pack that you’re just ready to pick up and go.”

A crew is assembled, and the members are either flown to the location by chartered plane or placed on commercial flights. It can sometimes take two days to get to a scene and get started, and Wethington said they are gone 18 to 28 days, sometimes longer.

The days are long and the breaks minimal while fighting fires - crews work 16-hour days with eight-hour breaks.

“This year, I was the sawer. That’s kind of difficult, packing a saw for 16 hours,” he said.

On a lot of the southern trips, they take machinery, such as bulldozers, and are usually able to sleep in motels. On trips out west, they often sleep in tents or just on the ground near the fire line, as it’s usually too remote to move fire fighters back and forth, Wethington said.

“Trying to move that many firefighters would be a logistical nightmare,” he said.

During fire season in Kentucky, which generally lasts from Oct. 1 to Dec. 15 and from Feb. 15 to April 30, Wethington said, members are on call.

“During conditions that it’s right to burn, we have an airplane that flies the regions and spots fires,” he said. Fire spotter towers have become a thing of the past, replaced by planes.

Wethington is grateful for the support of his wife and their daughters, Sarah, 17, and Anna, 14, which enables him to do something others might consider a bit dangerous.

“It’s kind of like an adventure,” he said of the job, explaining that he also gets satisfaction from helping others in the midst of a tough time.

Such was the case with the most recent western fire he participated in, the Carlton Complex Fire in summer 2014. It was the largest in Washington state’s history - consuming more than 256,000 acres - just less than the size of Casey County and more than that of Boyle County. It burned more than 300 structures and was blamed in one death, a heart attack.

It was during the Carlton Complex Fire that firefighters received thank you cards from students at a nearby school that was being used as a home base.

The cards are not uncommon and make the fighting more rewarding, Wethington said.

“You’re doing it for your job, but it gives you a little piece of satisfaction knowing that you’re helping somebody.”

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