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The Wildland Firefighters

Tackling the Natural Infernos Ripping Through the Backcountry

Our wildlands are burning. More than two million acres of land across the US are reported as having active fires, and following record temperatures and successive dry winters, experts are predicting worse conditions ahead. As we approach the Labor Day holiday – a long weekend celebrating our workforce that’s filled with opportunity to get outside – Backcountry spoke to the men and women who’ll be out on the frontline of the fires, tasked with protecting our homes, lands and livelihoods.

Two days in 12 weeks. That’s how much time Ryan Kelly, a wildland firefighter in California, and his wife Natalie have spent together this summer. He’s been on back-to-back assignments battling the record-breaking fires that have gripped the state so early in this year’s fire season, taking just four days off since June.  

Hiking into remote backcountry forests carrying a 60-pound pack, clearing potential fuel sources from a fire’s path with little more than a pulaski and a chainsaw, then camping out next to the blaze to keep watch on its often unpredictable behavior. Wildland firefighting is a demanding and dangerous job – but it’s a crucial component in the management of wildland fires where boots on the ground are far more effective than trucks on the road.

Nationwide, there are two million acres of land currently in the grips of wildland fires, requiring 484 crews and upwards of 22,500 personnel to manage them. In California, where this year one large fire seemingly replaces another, the now controlled Ferguson Fire forced the shutdown of Yosemite Valley for 20 days – the first closure of that section of park since 1990 – while this month, the ongoing Mendocino Complex Fire has already burned 450,985 acres. That’s almost double the size of the recent Thomas Fire, the state’s then largest blaze contained just seven months previously. Right now, the Mendocino Complex Fire has 3,061 personnel working to contain it, including soldiers from the 14th Brigade Engineer Battalion, and has claimed the life of one firefighter.

The threat of large fires at this time of year is nothing new. Since the early 1960s and the development of the Interregional Fire Suppression (IRFS) program, dedicated crews have been trained in fire management and suppression, ready to be deployed to high-priority fires nationwide at a moment’s notice. But following year after year of rising temperatures and consistently dry winters, firefighting crews are facing longer and more intense stints on the road in an environment that’s becoming ever-more susceptible to the rapid growth of wildfires.

For Ryan and Natalie, the fire trends and stretching season are part of the life they chose. The pair met six years ago – Ryan was part of an elite team of wildland firefighters, or ‘hotshots’, specially trained to work in remote areas, as was Natalie, before she moved into dispatch and incident management. “When we started dating, I had to get used to him being gone for 14-21 days at a time,” explains Natalie. “I was also traveling nationally to fires working as an aircraft dispatcher. In a four-month stretch we see each other as little as 10 days.

“We both understand [each other’s] struggles and fatigue from long fire seasons and allow ourselves to vent or, in my case, sometimes cry [laughs]. But we stay in our careers because firefighting fulfills our desire to help communities in need. We grow stronger as a couple every season because of our mutual respect for one another.”

This season, the Golden State registered one thousand wildfires over a week-long period in July – more than three times the average, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Mike Edrington, a veteran firefighter who’s been involved in wildland firefighting since 1964, believes the situation will only continue. “There’s been an upward trend in fire intensity since 1985,” says Mike, “and California especially will likely see more large fires this fall due to winds and the dry conditions.” This intensity causes an uneven drain on resources, and isn’t just restricted to California.

David Abbott, a firefighter with the Gallatin Rappel Crew in Bozeman, Montana, is feeling the effects of an escalated fire season. On his most recent deployment, he worked a two-mile stretch of high-risk ridgeline on the Goldstone Fire with just a handful of other firefighters.

The Goldstone Fire was burning along the Continental Divide Trail on the border with Idaho, so David and his crew used the trail as their fireline to keep the flames from moving south. It required a constant watch, as one shift in the wind could change everything, rendering their work useless. The forest was mostly subalpine fir and whitebark pine, but the quantity of dead and downed trees provided a fuel type so aggressive that ‘spot’ fires – fire ignited outside the perimeter of the main fire by a firebrand – were lighting up everywhere. Even the dirt seemed to burn. The high mountain altitude also made support from helicopters and tankers difficult.

A number of fires in the same region have required a ‘roll’ of 21 days to contain, an extension of seven days longer than the more standard roll time of 14 days – something David has seen on multiple fires already this season. “It seems like every year there’s one place in the country that gets hit particularly hard,” he explains, “but I think what we’re seeing in recent years – and 2018 in particular – is that several places are getting hit hard all at once.”

To fight fire in the wilderness requires sacrifice. Home life takes second place during fire season, and the dangers of the job can play heavy on the mind. Safety is taken incredibly seriously by the profession, but it is inherently risky – and disaster can strike fast. In 2013, 19 members of the 20-strong Granite Mountain Hotshots were suddenly trapped and killed by the erratic Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona.

Wildland firefighters aren’t often called to this profession without a passion for the spaces they’re working to protect. It’s a chance to see remote swathes of backcountry usually accessible to only the most intrepid of travelers. “There’s so much physical and mental crossover between wildland firefighting and backcountry travel,” says David. “All my time spent building situational awareness on wildfires in the summer keeps me sharp for analyzing avalanche hazards in the winter, and vice-versa. There’s no better training for long backcountry tours than hiking all day on summer wildfires. Plus, all that time spent in the snow at high altitude with a pack on my back keeps me ready for work in the summer.”

Blake Denning, a firefighter who works with Utah County Crew #2, is on assignment in Idaho at the Stewart Creek Fire. He too credits his career choice with his love of the outdoors – feeding off the adrenaline and opportunity for problem solving that comes with the job. “Being outside gets me away from all the troubles in the world, to places where I can push myself to be a better person – mentally, physically and emotionally,” says Blake. “We all need an out from our everyday stresses, and being outside is the greatest thing in the world to me. Having a career where I can do that just makes my life more enjoyable.”

Then there’s the people. Working closely and for intense blocks of time, wildland firefighters go through a lot together, forming bonds that can last a lifetime. “I’ve built so many lifelong friendships with the amazing men and women I’ve worked with throughout the years, so that means a lot to me,” says David. “It’s really great to work with folks who you know will always have your back.”

As the fire season stretches on beyond the summer, much more will be written about the record fire sizes and the worsening environmental situation that’s believed to be at least partly responsible for the upward trend in fire intensity. The firefighters however will continue their vital work. They’ll make the long hikes into the backcountry, they’ll pull that extra shift to support the management of another fire, and they’ll stay those few more days away from loved ones to make sure their job gets done – protecting our homes, our lands, and our livelihoods from the threat of wildfire.

Natalie and her family will keep going, too. It’s the firefighter mentality. “Our children understand why we do what we do, and they are very proud of us,” she says. “The life we live in the fire community is nothing new. We don’t complain – we just get it done.”

FOR THE WILDFIRE FIGHTERS

To honor the ongoing efforts of wildland firefighters to protect our homes and public lands, Backcountry is donating $10,000 of its Labor Day proceeds to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. Find out more about the organization and its work here.