Unique Firefighting Crew Has Common Trait: Military Service

August 17, 2018 Uncategorized

By Andrew Selsky (The Associated Press)

A fire crew member out of Lakeview, Ore., works on the Cougar Creek Fire in central Washington state, Aug. 17. The Lakeview Crew 7 is comprised almost entirely of U.S. military veterans. (Kari Greer/BLM/USDA Forest Service via AP)

By Andrew Selsky (The Associated Press)

SALEM, Ore. — After being in firefights in Afghanistan and Iraq, members of one of America’s newest elite wildfire crews are tasked with fighting fires in rugged country back home.

On the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s only hotshot crew focused on recruiting veterans, members have traded assault rifles and other weapons of war for chain saws and shovels. But, like in the military, they have camaraderie, structure and chain of command. And the occasional adrenaline rush.

“Being in a firefight is way different than being in a wildland fire, but both are mentally taxing,” said Chris Schott, who served two tours in Afghanistan with the Army‘s 7th Special Forces Group. “In a wild land fire, no one’s shooting at you, but conditions can go favorable to unfavorable very quickly.”

The Lakeview Veterans Interagency Hotshot Crew, based in Klamath Falls, Oregon, received its hotshot certification after rigorous training and testing, the Bureau of Land Management announced last week. It’s now among 112 elite U.S. wild land firefighting teams and the only targeting veterans for recruitment, the agency said.

Crew superintendent Michael McGirr said he and other managers took then-President Barack Obama’s initiative to hire veterans to heart.

“We felt it was important for them to transition back home,” McGirr said.

Their maturity and ability to follow and lead are benefits that quickly became apparent when the crew started operating in 2012 as a lower-classification unit, McGirr said. Their military experience also means they’re used to enduring tough missions.

“It’s a lot of arduous hiking in nasty terrain,” McGirr said. “The steeper the terrain, that’s usually the ground hotshots are on.”

Kenn Boles, a member of the crew since 2012 who did three tours in Iraq as a Marine, agreed that veterans can withstand the intense work.

“You’re working hard, sweating; the fire doesn’t stop because of those things,” he said. “It’s like in combat — just because you’re hungry, tired and thirsty doesn’t mean the firefight stops.”

The crew is on leave and hasn’t been battling the recent deadly wildfires in California.

Of the 25 positions on the crew, 17 are filled by veterans, McGirr said. There are three additional openings, and McGirr said he wants to recruit female veterans, too.

Schott, the Army veteran, said the crew felt they had the potential to achieve elite hotshot status after fighting fires in 2015, including one in Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park that they almost had contained when winds picked up and changed direction, pushing the flames behind them.

They worked two weeks in a row, digging fire lines and doing prescribed burns to deprive the fire of fuel. After three days off, they worked another two weeks straight.

“After that, we thought we could be the first veterans hotshot crew in the nation,” Schott said.

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