Fighting Fire with Fire at AmeriCorps NCCC

Article, written by Corpsmember Rachel, appears on the AmerCorps NCCC blog. Published August 20, 2014.
 
I had the privilege of being part of the Sun Unit fire management team, we were based out of Fort Collins, Colorado from mid March to late July.  We were working with the USDA Forest Service doing fire mitigation and suppression. My team spent our first 2 weeks in a classroom so we could get our Type II Firefighter certifications and red cards. We learned a lot, and had hands on training so we knew how to operate a fire engine and dig a fire line. We learned how to fight fire aggressively, while simultaneously keeping in mind the necessity for safety and communication out in the field. 
 
Our team had been warned months before that our time with the Forest Service would be mentally and physically exhausting, and the people who told us that certainly weren't lying. Each work day brought along new challenges, but being surrounded by such a supportive team definitely helped me get through those longer days. Usually we had to hike long distances to get to our work site, which was then followed by hours of physical labor and then an equally long hike out. Every time we did this we had our fire packs on which can weigh anywhere from 30-45 pounds. They have important things like water, food, a fire shelter, and extra PPE. We also carried our tools and other supplies we might need for any given project.

The first two months we were able to go out on a lot of prescribed burns. These burn projects help get rid of trees that could make fire behavior more extreme.  The days we lit the burn piles were a lot of fun, but they were usually followed by days of "mop up." Essentially mop up required our team to go back to the burn area and check piles to make sure they were no longer hot. The first two months we were with the Forest Service we had burned and secured approximately 100 acres.
 
When the weather got warmer, we worked on a thinning and clearing project up in the mountains. It was an interesting role reversal, because our time was then spent creating burn piles that the firefighters will light this upcoming winter. A lot of chain sawing was done to cut down dead trees in the area, and this will provide protection to nearby homes and towns in the event that there is a fire. 

One major theme throughout the entire experience was the need to be "fire ready" at all times. We were warned early on that we could be called to respond to a fire at any given moment. Every day when we went to our worksite, we always packed like we would not be back to our housing for 2 weeks. Overall though, the fire season was pretty uneventful because of all the snow and rainfall. Once we were called to an unattended campfire, and there were a couple of times we were sent out on a fire only to find out on our way there that it was a false alarm. It’s crazy how much our adrenaline would start pumping whenever we heard word that there was a smoke report or potential fire in the area. 

There was only one fire in our area throughout the 4 months we were near Fort Collins. It was close to 4 acres in size, and it had been caused by a lightning strike. Thanks to the help of other firefighting crews in the area it was quickly contained, and our team helped with mop up on the following days to make sure it was completely cold. It was also fairly close to a residential area, so it was really rewarding for our team to know that we played a part in protecting a community from immediate danger.  The 12-16 hour days were definitely difficult, and I can only imagine how exhausting it must be when there are larger fires that require weeks of constant work. 

Overall, my time with the Forest Service was one of the most challenging and exhausting experiences I could have imagined. I had no idea that I would try out for the firefighter team when I signed up for AmeriCorps NCCC, but I’m so glad that I did. I had the chance to learn a lot, and I pushed myself physically and mentally every day. Even though we had no idea what each day would bring, we stayed positive and kept our focus on the impact we were making. My team worked hard to help protect the communities in and around the national forests. I am so proud of us for what we managed to accomplish.