Going pro on the fire lines
With flames roaring a short distance away, Chris Derrickson and other members of his summer wildland fire crew set their own blaze — a controlled back fire, designed to help tame the uncontrolled one.
Winds were erratic and the flames were uncomfortably close, Derrickson said, but he wasn’t worried.
“I knew what to do,” he said. “It wasn’t scary. It was rewarding.”
He’d had good training.
Derrickson, 18, had just finished his junior year at McMinnville High School, where he’s in the Fire and Emergency Services pathway. He had studied fire science in theory and also had hands-on practice fighting fires.
One of about 20 career pathways at Mac High, Fire and Emergency Services introduces students to a variety of jobs in the field and gives them practical experience. When they graduate with a pathway endorsement — as Derrickson will next June — they have a jump start on a career, whether they plan to join the work force immediately or pursue additional studies.
For Derrickson, that pathway led directly to a job.
One of the speakers during the year was the owner of a wildland firefighting company in Nevada. After spending two days with the Mac High students, he announced he had two job openings for the summer. And Derrickson, who had already earned his Firefighter II qualifications, applied.
“I thought the work would be fun and it would get me in shape,” he said. “And I’d earn money for college and a boat.”
An avid fisherman, he had his eye on a drift boat so he could fish for steelhead and salmon on the Nestucca and other rivers. The boat is now in his driveway.
He’d started the firefighting pathway because it sounded interesting and fun, he said.
He also knew he’d like the teacher, Cindi Schultz, since he’d had a couple other classes with her. And he had a family history of firefighting, as his father fought fires with the National Guard.
When school ended in June, he said goodbye to his parents, Mike and Kathleen Derrickson. Then he drove to Ely, Nevada, where the firefighting company, Buscher Engines, is based.
The private company has two engines, each with a crew of three firefighters. It is on-call 24-7 to supplement the Bureau of Land Management crews fighting fires all over the huge Ely district.
The district stretches across 2 million acres in Nevada and Utah. It includes some timberland, but is mostly covered in juniper, pinion or sagebrush.
“It dries out quickly and torches pretty good,” he said.
Much of the time, Derrickson said, “We waited for calls.” Other times, they worked 14 days straight, depending on need.
He and the other crew members kept their gear in order and their engines clean so they could move out at a moment’s notice. They might be called in to dig fire lines, look for hot spots or follow other crews with their engine, extinguishing flare-ups.
After each call, he said, they would return to the home station, clean up their gear and inspect their truck, usually washing it and changing the oil and air filter. Then they would be prepared for the next call.
“I kept my stuff in a large duffel,” he said. “My fire clothes and fire equipment were in the truck already, so I could just grab and go.”
They kept a supply of food and drinking water in the truck. Sometimes they were close enough to civilization to find food and water during breaks, but other times they needed the supplies from the truck.
“We’d walk out some days, six or eight miles to the fire,” he said.
Derrickson said his normal gear for fighting fires included a long-sleeved Nomex fire-resistant shirt, with heavy gloves, Nomex pants and a hard hat. Add to that a backpack that might weigh 45 pounds.
“The equipment makes you sweat, but it keeps you cooler, too,” he said, noting that the Nevada weather was usually very dry and in the 80s or 90s, although temperatures reached 108 at one point.
Whenever a call came in, Derrickson said he and other members of his crew would consult with their boss. Then they would get their gear and strap themselves into their engine.
At the BLM yard, they would check in and fill their truck’s 750-gallon tank with water. Then they’d head for the fire scene.
One call took them on a six-hour drive to Utah, another on a five-hour drive to Las Vegas. The latter was for the Carpenter 1 fire, which charred 28,000 acres.
After the long drive, he said, he and his crew checked in at the fire camp and slept for a few hours.
Then they were assigned their first duty in what would stretch to 10 days of work — seeking out hot spots. Later, they would patrol for flare-ups, mop up after a hand crew and do cleanup and restoration tasks.
Before going out in the field, though, they attended one of the frequent briefings about weather and fire conditions,
Derrickson said the briefings are critical. “You need to know your surroundings, the atmospheric conditions, whether the fire is erratic,” he said.
He said he saw firsthand the importance of an acronym he learned at Mac High: LACES. That stands for Lookouts, Awareness, Communication, Escape Routes, Safety Zones — all critical things for a firefighter to know.
“If we don’t know those things, we shouldn’t proceed,” he said.
Derrickson used many of the other things he’d learned at Mac High while on the job, as well. But he also had a few experiences he hadn’t been expecting, such as strapping on a five-gallon bladder of water and walking through a still-hot area, squirting hot spots.
“I wish we could see more of the physical side during class,” he said.
He plans to mention this to his teacher. He’s an aide in Schultz’s class, so he’ll also have a chance to tell younger students about his work as a wildland firefighter.
In addition to being an aide for Schultz, Derrickson has one more class to take for the firefighting pathway — fire protection, which covers fighting structure fires. He’s already finished other related classes, including wildland firefighting, introduction to emergency services, search and rescue and forestry occupations.
Derrickson usually plays football, but he’s taking a break this year, as he was working in Nevada when practice started. He plans to join the track team in the spring, and may play rugby, too.
He’s also concentrating on his studies in preparation for college. He plans to go to Oregon State University to get a degree in fisheries.
A fan of fishing and hunting, he said he’d love to be a fishing guide in the winter and a firefighter in the summer.
He also wants to continue to work as a wildland firefighter during the summers while attending OSU. “I don’t want to leave college in debt,” he explained.
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.