He fought huge fires all over the country

Published 1:14 am Thursday, July 19, 2018

Fire isn’t something that scares Gary Thompson, not after 35 years of being a wild land firefighter.

“If you’re scared of fire, you can’t be in the wildfire fighting business,” he said.

“You need to respect it. Not fear it.”

Thompson was born and reared in Covington County, specifically in the Florala area.

“I’m a 1972 graduate of Florala,” he said. “Born and raised, and I still live there.”

Thompson’s start in the firefighting business began when he was approached by a ranger from the Alabama Forestry Commission.

“I was working at a farm at the time when I was approached by a ranger who asked me if I ever thought of working for the state,” Thompson said.

“At the time I said, ‘I don’t know, what do y’all do?’”

That was the start of his career, Thompson said.

“I think that next Monday is when I started and I stayed for 35 years. I haven’t had but three jobs in my entire life.”

After being hired, Thompson was given the opportunity to fight fires out west, in places like Arizona, California, Washington- just to name a few.

“It’s a lot different fighting fire over there. It’s done mostly by hand, heavy equipment can’t get in some of the areas like the mountainside,” he said.

“I’ve worked alongside complete strangers from all over- Puerto Rico, Australia, wherever. For weeks at a time, fighting these huge forest fires.”

Thompson remembers getting a new pair of gloves at the base camp and headquarters every day

The base camps could be set up anywhere, from the middle of the woods or even to a softball field in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Everyone knew that they had to get a new pair of gloves because they were all torn up after being out there all day,” he said.

The base camp is where the firefighters slept and showered with portable showers and kitchens.

There were no days off, Thompson said.

“We’d be working 21 days straight. No days off, just fighting the fire,” he said.

It was also a complicated process, communicating with overhead planes to assist fighting the fire.

“I definitely learned a lot about communication and working with others. I learned how to signal pilots,” he said.

The biggest fire Thompson fought was the Carlton Complex fire that spread from the Methow Valley.

The fire occurred in 2014 and burned 256,108 acres.

“That fire was about 10 miles away from the Canadian border. We ran from that fire three different times,” he said.

The fire was started when four different lightning-caused fires in the Methow Valley merged.

Thompson said that he enjoyed his career.

“It was an experience and it taught me a lot,” he said.

Ever since his retirement, Thompson took up produce gardening.

“I didn’t want to be lazy and I’ve always grown produce.”

Thompson also participated in assisting areas after hurricane or tornado damages.