Edwin Greene: Still chasing smoke at 72
by Sherrie Norris
At 72, he is possibly the oldest employee of the N.C. Forest Service.
With "smoke chaser" as his official title, Greene provides eyes, ears and manual assistance to local firefighters as needed, and is especially busy during high-risk fire days.
According to those who work with him, Greene's contributions are vast and his wisdom, knowledge and compassion are beyond compare.
"He is a good friend to our local fire departments and really cares about us," Tim Nelson, assistant fire chief at Deep Gap Fire Department, said.
Nelson also works closely with Greene as a volunteer standby during heightened fire-risk days through the forest service's readiness plan.
"Edwin not only offers physical assistance, but he also gives us good advice, feeds us and is a mentor to many of us," he said.
"Most smoke chasers retire after 20 or 30 years on the job, but the time Edwin has put in speaks to the kind of man that he is," local fire ranger Stewart Scott said.
Scott said that he was fortunate to have had a combined 73 years of knowledge passed down to him when he moved to Watauga County --"between Greene and recently retired Rudy Johnson."
"When I came on the job, I didn't know much about the country's 13 fire departments," Scott said. "Having Edwin around has been a tremendous help. He knows everyone and he knows a lot about wildfires."
For about eight months of the year, when fire risk is at its peak -- March through May and again in the fall -- Greene's vigilance and quick response is vital, Scott said.
"As a fire chaser, his job is primarily to report to the scene of a (wild) fire and initiate suppression action, staying at the scene until the fire is out," he said.
Currently manning the Forest Service's mobile office a few days a week near Boone, Greene has, in the past, watched for fires atop local towers. "That was an awful boring job," he said, "but you could see them flare up for miles around."
Greene came to the job as a carpenter, farmer, former member of the Cove Creek Fire Department and 10-year chief of the Beaver Dam Fire Department -- capable of maintaining fire towers, helping to control fires "and doing little odd jobs."
Things have changed through the years, he said, with his primary duties now centered on fire control "and helping people out."
For about four months of the year, Greene said his attention shifts to pest control and related environmental issues, with a lot of time spent on monitoring gypsy moths and contract work.
"I also go out and look at land, assess valuation of timber and work with loggers to make sure they aren't getting mud in the creeks, and things like that," he said.
Greene said he's never too old to learn new things.
"I've been in school every year since I started," he said. "You have to know the laws and keep your certifications up-to-date."
As the March winds begin to blow, Greene said his efforts are now more concentrated.
"A few fires are starting to show up," he said, "so, we're on a little higher alert. Between me and Stewart, we're on call 24/7."
Sometimes fires are set, Greene said, "but most are accidental."
And, they are usually worse in the spring, he said.
"We go through the deep freeze of winter that dries everything out," he said. "Then, from now till about May, it might rain today, the sun will come out tomorrow, the wind will blow, and then the next day, you'll have a pretty decent fire."
The majority of fires this time of year, Greene said, start from people cleaning up their yards and burning debris.
"Some people want to burn their brush and not watch it," he said. "You've got to be very careful with outside burning. You need to make sure you have a water hose and a clearing ring around your fire, and watch it until it goes out."
A big mistake happens when people just think the fire is out, and as soon as they leave, it flares back up, he said.
"People are burning more wood now due to the high cost of fuel, and they dump ashes out that can lay dormant a week or two or longer, then a big wind comes along and blows the top ashes off. That fire could still be burning down under that upper level," he said.
It's amazing what fire can do, Greene said, adding, "It can wipe you out in a heartbeat."
When the atmosphere is real dry, Greene and Scott are always on the ready and willing to help firefighters -- "especially if the fire is near the woods."
"Where we're on the scene of a wildfire we are the senior officers, but we don't like to show our authority. We're there mainly to assist and provide resources that the local firefighters might not have access to, like dozers, helicopters and other equipment they might need," he said.
During winter weather, wildfire or not, Greene said they will do "just about anything to help the fire departments," including removing snow, fallen trees and other debris from the roads. "Whatever they need us to do," he said.
Greene's deep respect for his fellow firefighters is obvious.
"People don't want to say nothing bad about firemen to me," he said. "Anybody that gives their time to fight fires, all they're doing is helping people. It takes good people to do things like that."
Greene has nurtured those relationships through the years and does all he can to support the efforts of local firefighters, in good times and bad.
"When they're out fighting a wildfire, especially, I make sure they are fed," he said. "I won't eat a bite before I make sure they've all eaten."
Greene and Scott also work closely with the National Park Service and nearby state parks.
"We cover the whole county," Greene said, "and we can be called to the other seven counties in our district if they have fires and need us."
Greene has many memories regarding nature's destruction in the area, including various fires, the March 1993 blizzard and the Christmas '09 ice storm.
"Among the worse situations I've dealt with," he said, "was a fire that burned a house in the Deep Gap area on about 660 acres, where Heavenly Mountain is now. At that time, it was all wilderness and no roads. It was a pretty tough time."
In March 1993, he led five helicopters around for three days, delivering supplies. "That was about the worse time I'd seen, and then again, during the Christmas ice storm. We worked a couple of weeks to try to help get the roads open," he said.
Greene said he has really enjoyed his career as a smoke chaser.
"There's nothing I'd rather be doing," he said. "I've had an excellent work experience and wouldn't swap it for anything else that I know of."
Meeting people and being able to help them is "the key thing," he said. "When we get a call, we're going out there to help and most everybody appreciates what we do."
He's had to write a few citations, but said he'd rather not have to.
"If people want to cooperate with us, it goes a lot better for everybody," he said, "but if they start lying to me, I'm liable to get out the big paper."
Greene said anyone planning to burn debris this spring needs to obtain a burning permit.
"The state requires it," he said, "and it don't cost you a thing. You can get one at several locations throughout the county, usually at some of the country stores. You can find them online, too."
Len Dollar, a member of Cove Creek Fire Department and a volunteer crew leader with the forest service, described Greene as "a valuable asset to the county."
Having worked with Greene in various capacities for 31 years, Dollar called him, "not only my hero in the forest service, but also my friend."
"When I joined the fire department in 1982, I became acquainted with him and have looked up to him ever since," Dollar said. "We've spent many nights in the woods together and many miles on the road together."
Retirement hasn't been mentioned, Greene said, "but, I'm thinking a little about it."
As long as his health holds out, he doesn't plan to quit, completely.
"I enjoy getting out and talking to people and helping where I can," he said. "It's just in me to be a smoke chaser, I reckon."