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A profile-Larry Humphrey

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  • A profile-Larry Humphrey

    TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - Dressed in a black T-shirt, matching ball
    cap and brown washpants, shoulders hunched and hands buried deep in
    his front pockets, Larry Humphrey has an unremarkable appearance
    that does nothing to signal that he's one of the country's elite
    wildfire experts.
    Then he speaks in a tone that's not quite twang, not quite
    drawl, and with his easily understandable explanations and snippets
    about strategy, he quickly erases any doubt that he knows fire.
    In his full-time job as a prescribed burn and fuels specialist
    for the Bureau of Land Management in Safford, Ariz., and in his
    fifth and last year heading one of the 16 elite national incident
    management teams that battle large wildfires, Humphrey has faced
    off against countless blazes in the last 30 years, always trying to
    hold them in check or to use them to the land's benefit.
    Humphrey, a 56-year-old fourth-generation Arizonan who grew up
    in Florence, has two families: his wife, four children and seven
    grandchildren, and his firefighting team.
    And he has many friends, from his teammates and colleagues to
    the people around the country whose homes and property he's tried
    to save.
    Humphrey has been a hero. Ask people like postal carrier Becky
    Hardey in Polebridge, Mont. Humphrey's autographed hardhat still
    hangs by a nail on a wall in the Northern Lights saloon there.
    During the 1988 Red Bench fire, Humphrey climbed into the attic
    of the Polebridge Mercantile store next door, which housed the post
    office. Dragging a hose with him, he doused embers that had blown
    into the eaves of the wooden mercantile, which was built in 1914
    and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
    "He crawled up into the rafters, into the attic, before it
    could take hold," Hardey recalled. "It was pretty amazing. The
    fire went all around the merc and the saloon, and it did take out a
    few buildings in town."
    Humphrey was also instrumental in securing Los Alamos, N.M., in
    the Cerro Grande fire of 2000, in saving Summerhaven last year on
    Mount Lemmon from the Bullock fire and in finally taming last
    summer's 469,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire, the largest in Arizona
    history.
    He and his team had less luck trying to defend Summerhaven again
    this year from the Aspen fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes
    and cabins in the mountaintop vacation hamlet last month.
    Now, Humphrey and his team are back in eastern Arizona fighting
    the Kinishba fire on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.
    "As an incident commander, in my opinion, he's the gutsiest,
    most action-oriented IC of the 16 in the country," said Jim Paxon,
    a colleague and friend who served as the spokesman for Humphrey's
    team until retiring last year.
    "The best example is the Rodeo-Chediski," Paxon said. "Larry
    recognized that there were thousands of homes at risk and we went
    to the front of the fire and we did everything we could to save
    homes and lives. He essentially put his career on the line to save
    as many homes as he could."
    Chadeen Palmer, who succeeded Paxon, said Humphrey is one of an
    aging breed. "They lived, they breathed fire, they slept fire, and
    it's just part of them. And I don't know that that type is in the
    upcoming ranks anymore."
    Humphrey also is respectful of those with whom he works, and of
    those who help his team.
    He listens, sounds out decisions, gives people latitude, those
    who've worked for him agree.
    Bunny Humphrey, Humphrey's wife of nearly 34 years, said her
    husband visits with every team member he can at least once a day.
    "One of his jobs is to make sure that the team meshes well,"
    she said. "And there is no room for stars on that team. He lets
    everyone do their job. He does not micromanage.
    "However, he does try to do that at home. We tell him to go
    take a nap and change his attitude."
    At a news conference during the Aspen fire, Humphrey took time
    to praise 7-year-old Daniel Baker for buying power bars and water
    for firefighters with $77 he raised by selling doughnuts.
    Humphrey gave the boy an incident team pin, stickers and a cap
    that actually fit, then added, "We may have a young firefighter
    coming up here."
    Each incident management team is staffed by people with
    firefighting or related expertise who are brought together to
    battle the most complex, dangerous and threatening wildfires.
    Increasingly, the teams, which operate in a highly organized
    paramilitary structure, are also being dispatched to help with
    other disasters - from hurricanes to the shuttle disaster recovery
    to the Sept. 11 attacks.
    Humphrey's is one of two such top-level teams from the
    Southwest, made up of people from Arizona, New Mexico and west
    Texas.
    Dan Oltrogge, Humphrey's counterpart with the other Southwest
    incident management team and a friend, said: "He's one of the best
    firemen I've ever run across. He is, instinctively. He gets dialed
    in. And strategy and tactics, they seem to come easy for him."
    Despite his dangerous job, Humphrey is no stranger to humor,
    which he often wields as a stress-reliever. Occasionally, he'll
    play a joke on someone. Sometimes he's victimized too.
    In 1990, as the incident team was demobilizing from a fire in
    Texas, their bus was pulled over by law enforcement officers, said
    Jim Payne, a Forest Service spokesman.
    "They came on board, and they said, `Is there a Larry Humphrey
    here?' And they took him off the bus and handcuffed him and patted
    him down," Payne said.
    Bunny Humphrey said she remembers the incident, and is sure her
    husband returned the favor.
    "We always pay them back," she said. "He said it just takes
    time. And he said, `And I've got plenty of that."'
    Humphrey became a firefighter his first day on the job for the
    BLM more than 29 years ago.
    When he walked into the office, the district manager asked him
    if he wanted to fight a fire.
    "I said, 'Sure,' and he gave me a driver's license and a load
    of supplies, and away I went. I got home about two weeks later, and
    I thought it was really great."
    After this fire season, Humphrey may retire. "If I don't retire
    I may come back on the team or one of the other teams in some other
    position," he said.
    Oltrogge said he anticipates Humphrey will stay involved in
    firefighting in some fashion.
    "Oh, absolutely," he said. "Yeah. If Humph's got a pulse,
    he'll be involved in team stuff, some form or fashion."

    (Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
    Proudly serving as the IACOJ Minister of Information & Propoganda!
    Be Safe! Lookouts-Awareness-Communications-Escape Routes-Safety Zones

    *Gathering Crust Since 1968*
    On the web at www.section2wildfire.com

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