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‘It is inherently dangerous’

Battling blazes becomes a way of life for firefighters and their families

Demanding. Dangerous. And, at times, deadly.

While local firefighters are not battling blazes here, they often are being dispatched elsewhere to fight wildfires. It’s a challenging way to make a living, and tough on families, too.

Tim Haas, 35, assistant north zone fire manager for the Shoshone National Forest, recently returned from the Royal Gorge and Thompson Ridge fires in Colorado and New Mexico, respectively.

Like firefighters working for the U.S. Forest Service elsewhere, Shoshone personnel may travel anywhere in America to fight fires, Haas said. Other employees whose paychecks are signed by Uncle Sam also journey around the country to battle blazes.

Chuck Russell, 40, Bureau of Land Management Wind River/Bighorn Basin district fire management officer, is an incident commander.

“I just became a type 2 incident commander last year,” Russell said.

If a fire exceeds the local control, a type 2 incident command team steps in. Type 1 teams manage fires that are placing lots of structures at risk, grow extremely fast or involve a mortality, Russell said.

Russell recently returned from the Big Meadows, Wild Rose and Collins fires in in Colorado.

Typically firefighters will work a fire for 14 days, then take two days for rest and relaxation. Work days usually last 16 hours, but if life or property is at stake, they will work longer than that, Haas said.

Russell said he and his team usually work 16-hour days too. But if lives and property are at risk, they don’t punch out.

The firefighter can return home or R&R at the fire. Generally, firefighters on loan can remain on a fire up to one month, Haas said.

Haas said he fights wildland fires mostly in the West and some fires in the Southeast. In the West, the season can stretch into October.

Heavy, grueling work

Fire landscapes vary. Sometimes fires burn in very high-altitude terrain. Other fires are at lower elevations.

The most strenuous duty is building hand lines — fire breaks constructed with hand tools like shovels, picks and chainsaws. The most common illnesses are dehydration or heat-related exhaustion. “It just wears you down,” Haas said.

Most firefighters carry a 30- to 35-pound pack. That includes four quarts of water, a fire shelter, lunch, batteries and other items. Firefighters also may pack chainsaws that weigh 25 pounds or five-gallon bladder bags weighing 40 pounds, Haas said.

Firefighters carry the rubber bladders (like square inner tubes) on their back. The bladders are connected to a slim hoses used to douse flames.

Firefighters don’t bunk in motels. They typically grab 40 winks on the ground in tents.

On his last deployment, Russell slept in a tent on a soccer field, but the last seven days were in a college dorm room. “High living,” Russell said.

Fires camps are laid out with military precision. Toilets and bathrooms are usually available. Caterers often prepare the meals.

Overall, the grub is pretty good. It is high in nutrition and calories.

“We burn massive amounts of calories out there,” Haas said.

Families also on the line

Russell and his wife, Kami, have four children.

In August and September, he has only five or six full days with his family. The rest are spent on fires. Although the firefighter divorce rate is high, Russell said he and Kami have been married 17 years, Russell said.

In September, Haas will have been married 12 years to Amy. Their daughter, Avryl, is 6. It’s a real tear-jerker leaving his little girl, he admitted.

“‘I don’t want you to go,’” Haas says, quoting Avryl.

Fire deployments can be a strain on the family. Amy worries, but accepts it because he enjoys firefighting, Haas said.

“She struggles with it,” he said.

Although he hates leaving his family, he is good at his work and enjoys it, Amy said. Cell phones aren’t always reliable in mountain fire camps, he tries to call home every night, Haas said.

“We wait for those phone calls,” Amy said. “We miss him.”

Amy has fought fires too. When she worked in the Black Hills National Forest, she was on a fire helicopter crew that worked the Shoshone’s Little Venus Fire in 2006. In fact, she was carrying Avryl at the time, she said.

When Tim is away, she is not on her own. An extended family of firefighter spouses, families and coworkers pitch in, doing everything from feeding pets to helping with children.

“We have such a tight family,” Amy said.

Tim tries make up for lost time in winter, he said. They are trying to get Avryl interested in the outdoors, Amy said.  It seems to be working.

“She has been skiing since she was 18 months old,” Amy said.

Deadly serious work

Picture smoke so thick it practically takes a knife to cut it, or airborne cinders torching entire trees as though they were giant wood matches flicked by a thumbnail. Fire is noisy, with trees crackling everywhere, and there may be helicopters or slurry bombers overhead contributing to the uproar. 

“It is inherently dangerous,” Haas said.

It’s trite, but true: Civilians run from fires while firefighters and first responders run to them.

As with police or military personnel, training kicks in when danger rears its head.

In a fire, completing the task at hand becomes second nature. Once, when he was attending a leadership class taught by military special forces, the military man remarked, “‘What you guys do — I’d be scared to death,’” Russell said.

Nineteen members of the type 1 Granite Mountain Hotshots died June 30 while fighting the 2,000 acre Yarnell Hill Fire.

When firefighters succumb it triggers a ripple effect that is felt throughout the firefighting community, Russell said. They were a heroic bunch, and Amy said her sympathy goes out to the families of the firefighters who were lost.

“It hit hard,” she said.

Ordinary citizens should recognize the fact that those men and women are working their tails off. “Those folks that are out there are doing the very best job they can,” Russell said.

“When I started out with fires it was a means to get through college,” Russell said.

He’s been working fires since 1991. Firefighting seems to get into the blood, Russell said.

Haas has been fighting fires for 14 years.

Firefighter retirement is not necessarily an edict.

“There are quite a few older guys that still do it in their 60s,” Haas said.

That’s a goal — to continue to do the job safely and work until you are ready to retire, he said. Getting there, however, is a challenge.

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