Fire Fighting Western Style
Every year, when big fires advance up the West Coast toward northern California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, experienced Missouri fire fighters start gearing up -- mentally and physically.
It's not that the western fires are any threat to Missouri. We have our own fire problems here. However, most years the Conservation Department, at request of the U.S. Forest Service, sends one or two 20-person crews, including support and supervisory people, to help fight western fires.
Fire fighting can get into your blood, and that's part of the reason why people volunteer to leave home for three weeks. There is an adrenaline rush from watching a fire race from treetop to treetop and even more of a thrill from being able to stop the fire's advance. In a way it's a test of self confidence in the face of Mother Nature's worst behavior.
Western fire duty allows Conservation Department personnel to learn and refine their wildfire suppression skills. These skills pay obvious dividends during Missouri's spring and fall fire seasons.
I was on standby for being called to fight western fires one summer a few years ago. I wasn't sure whether I would be going or when, but knowing the call could come at any time, I kept my bags packed and stayed in fire-fighting shape by running every day at the local high school track.
Finally the call came. Tom Ronk, the Conservation Department's fire program supervisor asked me if I could be at the Forest 44 Conservation Area near St. Louis at 5 a.m. the next morning. From there our group would travel to Oregon to fight fires.
After several phone calls, some last minute packing and a ceremonial haircut, I was en route to St. Louis.
Many of the crew members were already at Forest 44 when I arrived.
Some were organizing their equipment; others were trading stories from their last trip. All were anxious, but the veterans knew how not to look too excited, as the rookies nervously checked and rechecked their gear.
Crew supervisors, squad bosses and crew members held frequent meetings to make sure everyone was mentally and physically prepared to fight fire for 21 days. We held a fire shelter practice session to ensure that every one of us knew how to use this life saving equipment.
Supervisors also weighed our gear. No one could board the plane with over 55 pounds of clothing and protective equipment. After we received the final briefing on our