Local emergency crews help rescue efforts in Breathitt County

Published 10:30 am Thursday, August 4, 2022

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Amidst the devastation that’s taken place in southeastern Kentucky, emergency personnel from all over have been sure to provide assistance.

Both Winchester and Clark County Fire Departments are no exception.

Last Thursday, at approximately 11 a.m., five firefighters from Winchester FD and another three from Clark County FD traveled to Jackson in Breathitt County to assist those affected by severe flooding that has ravaged the area.

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The team did not arrive in Winchester until approximately 1:30 a.m. Friday morning, after spending around 12 hours at work.

“Our main objective was to evacuate people to safe ground, [and] provide a lot of manpower,” said Winchester Fire Department Battalion Chief Scott Bell.

Many supplies were taken to the area, such as Marine 1 – the newest boat belonging to the Winchester Fire Department – and personal flotation devices, or PFDs. Clark County Fire Department also used its boat.

As with many urgent and unanticipated situations, coordination with other organizations, including Kentucky Emergency Management, the Emergency Operations Center, and FEMA, was crucial.

En route to Jackson, local emergency personnel was only aware that individuals were in peril, and there would surely be some carnage.

“We didn’t really know what to expect. We knew that people were being displaced from their homes due to rising flood water”, said firefighter Hunter McFarland. “They were being moved across flood waters to another portion of dry Highway 15. [Kentucky Department of] Fish and Wildlife [Resources] brought them to us, and we took them across more rising flood waters to a Breathitt County school bus that transferred them somewhere unbeknownst to us.”

The project was anything but simple.

The combination of swift water and rising water levels threatened to interact with power lines – putting the team at risk. Visibility also became an issue.

“We were traversing these waterways that normally weren’t waterways, and the water was high enough that we were level with the powerlines,” McFarland said. “When you add nightfall to the operation, it always escalates things.”

Team members also had to convince the people they were saving – loyal to their homes – to leave the premises.

“There were two people that did not necessarily want to be rescued. This was toward the end of our mission that night”, McFarland said. “We advised them of adverse weather conditions, that it was supposed to rain two to three more inches that night. We got them convinced to leave the area and go to higher ground.”

Despite the risks, the crews completed the mission at hand.

“We had 85 evacuated and rescued, and then we had about thirty pets”, Bell said.

Challenging operations continue in the flood-ravaged region as more crews from across the state plan to send rescue crews to mitigate concerns.

While the situation is undoubtedly tragic and ongoing concerns present themselves, the experience has also proven rewarding for the men.

“As far as for us firefighters getting to go down there and being able to help them, it’s definitely a rewarding experience,” Bell said. “The people that we got out of there on boats are very grateful, and they were really shocked to see us come all the way from Clark County and Winchester.”