By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
The rangers of the Georgia Forestry Commission’s Dade office called in the Sentinel because they wanted the public to know about the services they had available (see accompanying article). The Sentinel was happy to stop by, meanwhile, as an occasion to suss out the GFC’s new digs behind the county athletic fields on Highway 11 South.
“This is fantastic,” said Ranger Tawn McKinley. “This is night and day compared to the trailer. We can be cool in the summertime and warm in the wintertime.”
The Sentinel had found McKinley and his brother rangers, Bobby Dunn and Kerry Phillips, happily putting the finishing touches on their new office. The rangers themselves did much of the finish work, rewiring for lighting, installing appliances, staining the trim and painting the inside walls a strained-pea-green they picked out themselves, a choice that can only be accounted for by testosterone. “It matches our uniforms,” they pointed out defensively.
The old forestry office just outside Trenton went the same way as much of the town’s south side last spring, which is to say: Oz. After the tornados of April 27, 2011, little remained of the old place but rubble, and the rangers moved into a doublewide trailer they pulled into the lot. There, says McKinley, they froze in the winter and sweltered in the summer.
Fortunately, there was insurance in place for a new building, but the design the GFC worked out, incorporating a badly-needed shop and storage area for heavy equipment, would not fit into the old location. Dade, anxious to keep its GFC resources, offered to lease another location, but the Georgia agency did not want to invest construction dollars in a site it didn’t own.
In the end a land swap was worked out: Georgia gave Dade the old 1.7-acre lot inside Trenton, and Dade gave GFC the approximate 3-acre site down Highway 11 just behind the county athletic fields.
McKinley says his agency has been able to stretch its insurance dollars further because of Dade’s generosity not just with the land but also with the dirt work. “We were able to contract through them, and that was a major, major savings,” he said.
The new forestry facility has a tool room and equipment bay with double doors the rangers can drive their bulldozers all the way through. “You don’t have all this backing-up stuff where you’ve got to guess and judge,” said McKinley, showing off the shop. “Everything’s straightforward.”
Since moving in this summer, the rangers have kept busy not just fighting fires and painting their walls a la Gerber but catching up with equipment maintenance that had to remain on hold when the ‘dozers lived outside in the parking lot.
On the subject of aesthetics, the Sentinel also inquired why an agency specializing in trees had cut down every one of them at the new site. McKinley, who had plainly heard the question before, explained: The office had been planned for the back of the property but in the end it hadn’t been possible to place it there. “The cost was prohibitive trying to remove the rock back there, so instead they moved the whole building, both buildings, forward,” he said. “That’s why we lost that strip of timber that was going to be a buffer for us.”
“But we’ve got trees planted out front and they’re growing,” pointed out Bobby Dunn. “We like to plant trees.”
Dunn was hired before the tornados and was to have begun work May 1, 2011. But on the morning of April 27, he sensed he might be needed and reported in a few days early. “So they backed my start day back to the 27th,,” said Dunn. “I’ll never forget when I started.”
Kerry Phillips, the newest ranger, was hired at the beginning of this year. “The reason being the rate of jobs and the intensity of fires that we have when they do occur,” said McKinley, who himself has been on the job for 22 years. “We often were calling in help from other places.”
These three, supervised by Chief Ranger Heath Morton, make up the Trenton office’s staff, and they expect to be there a while. Because of Dade’s remoteness from the rest of the state, and because of the magnitude and number of its forest fires: “We have it from the director,” said McKinley. “It’s already been put down that there will always be a GFC office in Dade County.”
“Always,” said Dunn. “We’ll always be here for the residents of Dade County.”