Western student fights blazes over summer break

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By Mariam Hess

Imagine you are working a summer job as a college student. What are you doing? Retail work? Food service? Then imagine that you are working for the Horton Bureau of Indian Affairs, being paid by the federal government to fight fires in Wyoming and New Mexico. That’s how Missouri Western student Isaac Whitman spent the summer of 2017.

As a sophomore honors student majoring in wildlife conservation and management, Whitman said that he discovered the job through Western’s Wildlife Society.

“It was related to my major and gave me great experience, but it wasn’t required or anything like that,” he said.  “Really the two biggest reasons I did it was to get marketable experience and it paid extremely well.”

The fire crew was on call the entire summer. They were required to drop everything and go as soon as they were called.

“I would have all my personal gear packed, ready and sitting in my car 24/7.  When I got the deployment call I would have three hours to get to the fire building in Horton, Kansas.  That’s two-hour drive from my place in Lincoln, Nebraska, so I would drop whatever I was doing and head down,” Whitman said.

Whitman’s team exclusively fought wildfires on the ground and they were only called when there was an active fire or a fire imminent. The Kansas fire team would meet in Horton to assemble their gear and rental trucks. From there they would drive, sometimes through the night, to meet the second half of the team in Denver, Colorado. They would then go on to the site of the wildfire to set up their permanent encampment. There they would stay for the span of their deployment, or “roll,” which would last for 14 days.

Whitman was the newest member of the Kansas team from Western. His first roll of the summer was near El Rito, New Mexico, in the second week of June, where he fought the Bonita Fire. Prior to the roll, he was required to earn his fire-fighting certification online before attending a training weekend in May. Whitman’s second roll was at the end of June, fighting the Keystone Fire near Albany, Wyoming.

The fire crew got close and personal with the fires during their rolls out in the wild. “I worked as part of a hand crew,” Whitman said. “As a hand crew, we worked at two fires where we dug hand-lines to stop the fire, cleared brush along roads and dozer lines to contain the fire and worked around houses, clearing out flammable materials around them and setting up sprinklers and hose lines around the structures.  We also worked in already burned areas, ensuring that there were no ‘hot spots’ close to the perimeter.”

Whitman explained that he and his crew typically worked 14-16 hour days, sometimes with less than seven hours of sleep. The work was physically demanding as well as stressful on bodies unused to altitudes so high. However, the experience was more than worth the hiccups along the way.

The fire-fighting experience even changed Whitman’s view of his major.

“This experience opened my eyes to other potential career opportunities … [a] whole new career path that I had never known, let alone considered.” Whitman now hopes to use his degree in a future career restoring fields to a native prairie ecosystem, possibly expanding into a career connected with fire.

Whitman’s crewmates agreed that the fire-fighting experience is worth more than just a hefty check and experience in their fields of study. Brad Thomas, a fellow Western student, said, “The best part about this job is traveling the country and working alongside the crew. You become brothers out there. The gratitude from the public after you have been working on a fire is a great feeling.”

Blake Koelling, also a Western student, couldn’t agree more.

“The best thing … is knowing the work you are doing out there could save homes and lives. It makes you work that much harder at what you’re doing,” Koellig said.