For new recruits, summer of baptism by fire

In the epic struggle this summer between humans and nature, Anna Moody may be one of the nation's best hopes of keeping the flint-dry American West from burning down.

At 22, Ms. Moody represents the next generation of federal firefighters – young pyro-warriors being groomed to replace thousands of aging Baby Boomers retiring from the firefighting ranks.

They are taking over at a time when the West faces potentially one of most incendiary fire seasons in modern history – with all the risk that entails.

Just a few years ago, young people like Moody came in as idealistic college students, eager for an adventurous summer doing whatever they could to help put out blazes, even if it meant just manning chow lines.

Now many of them are moving into positions of authority – Moody is the squad boss on a helicopter strike team – and will be confronting the kind of big volatile blazes that are becoming commonplace in the West.

"I've thought a lot about the situations we're going to be placed in this summer, and I am continually reminding myself to always be aware, never let my guard down," says Moody, admitting that she has a heart-pumping job that only a few of America's newly minted college graduates can understand.

Generation next

The changing of the guard is coming quickly in the West. Three years ago, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, warned that, because many premier firefighters were getting older and nearing retirement, the nation was facing a shortage of qualified crews.

The next year, after a disastrous fire season, Congress responded by increasing federal investment in wildfire management. The result is more people like Moody carrying Pulaski shovels and rappelling from helicopters. Indeed, two years ago, the Forest Service had 11,474 trained recruits. This summer there will be nearly 18,000 – a 60 percent increase.

The quick baptism by fire for many of them is putting a new premium on safety. Never far from the recruits' thoughts are the notorious South Canyon blaze that claimed the lives of 14 firefighters on Colorado's Storm King Mountain in 1994, and the Thirty Mile Fire which left four dead in Washington state last summer.

Just this week, an air tanker crashed while battling a fire in Northern California, killing all three crew members. Mercifully, no one has perished in the wildfire burning outside Denver, now about 50 percent contained.

"In the past there used to be this relaxed notion that fighting fires was a fun way for students to spend the summer," says Hans Oaks, who helps run a Forest Service engine crew and who, like Moody, is one of the new generation of firefighters. "Now it's gotten pretty serious, and safety's on everybody's mind. I'd call it a sobering appreciation for what can go wrong."

Across the northern tier of the West, dozens of national forests have made 20-person mobile crews available for wherever fires erupt. For now, Moody and Mr. Oaks are waiting for their call.

Moody's helicopter team is stationed at the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana. Oaks's engine company operates out of the Gallatin National Forest, further south, near Bozeman. Although the two have never met, their paths may well converge this summer.

As part of the government's "initial attack force," each has been handed the daunting challenge of containing small fires of two acres or less before they blow up into major conflagrations.

Their actions will be critical in keeping this summer from becoming the Year of the Wildfire.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, of 171 new fires that were recently ignited on a single day, initial attack forces stopped all but three.

"When fires are in the early stages, you have the best opportunity to contain them, but it's also an explosive time," Moody says. "It only takes the wind to kick up and a seemingly tiny fire to grow and change direction for accidents to to happen."

A crucial job; intensive training

Even though still young, Moody does have some experience in taking on one of nature's most powerful forces. In her rookie season as a high schooler, she was taught the basics, such as how to dig a fire line and work a chainsaw. Now she spends her days rappelling out of helicopters onto rugged craggy slopes.

Having lost a colleague in a wildfire last year, she knows the perils of the conditions she's confronting. Oaks assumes a similar responsibility, but from the ground, leading his engine crew toward walls of flames. A native of upstate New York and a veteran of the Marine Corps, he came West to attend the University of Montana during the 1990s and became hooked.

New safety precautions

To improve safety this year, every firefighter is receiving instruction on how to deploy new tent-like emergency fire shelters – shields once thought necessary only in extreme conditions.

"Safety is a priority because the conditions out there warrant it," says Don Smurthwaite, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

Further, although agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are built on a strict chain of command, young people have been given the green light to question authority without being subjected to punishment – if they feel a situation is too dangerous.

Still, even with all the precautions, dangers persist for the nation's increasingly young firefighting corps – particularly the summer recruits. For many, however, the money they can earn offsets the hazards.

The seasonal firefighters earn around $10 an hour, with extra for "hazard" pay. During a busy 90-day fire season, 70 to 80-hour workweeks are not uncommon. Moody says her friends have gone back to university in the fall with anywhere between $2,000 and $15,000 in their pockets.

The average age of seasonal firefighters is just past college age, and senior firefighter commanders admit privately that they worry preparedness is lacking. Moreover, crews training in a certain type of forested terrain like the Rockies may be unprepared to recognize dangerous warning signs when they are shifted to fire lines elsewhere, such as the chaparral grasslands of California.

"The Forest Service has a lot invested in me," Moody says. "But I don't know if I'm going to make a career out of this or not. I'm into it here and now. This kind of excitement gets into your blood."

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