It was nearly midnight Saturday, but 5-year-old Desirae Smith found the energy to jump into her father’s arms when he walked into the Enola Volunteer Fire Department.
Robert Smith, a volunteer firefighter with the department, is one of more than 300 personnel battling the Chestnut Knob wildfire in Burke County, in western North Carolina. His protective gear covered in soot, Smith used his camouflage hat to play peekaboo with his daughter.
A few moments later, he tucked a piece of Desirae’s blonde hair behind her ear and told her it was time to go home to bed.
After full days of fighting the fire, Smith cherishes the few moments he gets to spend with his daughter.
“When we get up she’s still in bed or at school, and we’re here until after dark,” Smith said. “That’s the only time you get to see them. Rough – it’s rough.”
Volunteer firefighters are on the front lines of the South Mountains wildfire, which has blazed through more than 6,000 acres of drought-stricken land outside of Morganton. Smith and other volunteers have been removing leaves and other debris near homes in hopes of protecting them from catching fire.
Many of the volunteers have been balancing full-time jobs with their firefighting duties. Some have called out from their paying jobs.
It’s rare for volunteer firefighters to work so many consecutive hours. The last time the Enola Volunteer Fire Department saw a blaze this large was in 1985 when a wildfire raged across nearly 5,000 acres and jumped Interstate 40.
This month, Enola volunteers spent more than 10 days around the clock fighting the Chestnut Knob blaze with a fire engine, brush truck, rescue truck and command unit.
Smith said the community has shown lots of support. Sometimes residents pay for firefighters’ fuel at the gas station or thank them for their work.
The incident command post has been overwhelmed with donations – ChapStick, wool socks, hand sanitizer, crackers, treats and home-cooked meals.
“The homeowners are really appreciative that we’re helping,” Smith said. “Every time we pass someone they want to shake your hand and thank you for the work that you do.”
Desirae’s kindergarten class colored a photo of a mountain range, adorned with flowers and their signatures to thank the firefighters.
On Saturday, Smith asked his daughter about the picture and kissed her goodnight.
“I love serving the community and I’ve always liked helping people,” he said. “It’s not for the pay or for the recognition.”