Firefighter’s dream of working in forest comes true
By Jim Newton firstname.lastname@example.org August 30, 2013 6:58PM
DNR fire crew prepares a fire line in anticipation of burning out the ground vegetation to prevent the fire from spreading beyond the control line. | Courtesy of Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Updated: October 30, 2013 3:19AM
Fox Lake firefighter Curt Martin said that when he was growing up, he always felt he would like to work in the forest someday.
That dream has come true, although the work may be a bit more strenuous than he had envisioned.
Martin was part of an Attack Wildland Fire Crew sponsored by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources that returned recently from a two-week deployment battling the Labrador wildfire in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in southwest Oregon.
Martin was on the assignment from July 22 to Aug. 8, primarily clearing fire lines ahead of the lightning-ignited Labrador fire, which he said is still burning this week and involves about 2,000 acres.
Crew members, all of whom have specialized training in wildland firefighting, typically use hand equipment including shovels and chainsaws to dig fire lines and clear brush and fallen trees that could provide fuel to the advancing wildfire, providing a fire line barrier.
Martin, who worked as a crew boss in charge of a team of 20 firefighters, said his team was working fire lines between one-and-a-half miles and nine miles from the fire, but never saw the flames.
“One day we thought we saw the glow from the fire,” he said. “It was hazy all the time. Except for one clear day, we were in smoke 24/7.”
It’s hard work and steep terrain, but Martin loves it and has volunteered for it whenever he is asked. At age 50, he works out regularly to stay in shape for the rigors of the occasional wildfire deployments.
“I’m always glad to go,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since 1993.”
Martin started as a firefighter in Illinois in 1986, but got his first taste of fighting wildfires when he moved to work as a firefighter in Orange County, California, in 1993. Five years later he returned to Illinois to be with his kids, and became reacquainted with battling wildfires in 2006 after Illinois began assembling mobile wildfire crews.
Having moved up the ranks to crew chief, he has made many friends on the deployments and looks forward to working with them each time he is sent out.
The teams work from base camps, where they sleep in tents at night.
He said fighting wildfires is different than battling structure fires — more physically challenging with longer days but also more rewarding in terms of scenery.
The Labrador fire has been especially hard to quash because it involves extremely steep terrain and a lack of aerial support due to the amount of smoke. He said that as of the last report he was given, officials are counting on “a major weather event” to eventually kill the fire.
The Type 2 Initial Attack Wildland Fire Crew sent to the Labrador fire included nine IDNR staff, four staff from the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, four local community firefighters including Martin, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee, a city forester from Homewood, and a natural resources management contractor from Geneseo.
Deployment expenses for the Illinois crew (and all other state crews) are reimbursed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Martin said lightning fires have been bad out west this year, including high-profile fires threatening national parks such as Yosemite Rim fire. He said he hopes to be called out again this year before the season is up.
Nationally, the Forest Service reports there are more than 35 uncontained wildland fires, mostly in the western U.S., which have burned more than 750,000 acres this year.
“We are proud of the hard-working, dedicated individuals on this team for answering the call to the western fires deployment this summer,” said IDNR Director Marc Miller.
“Our IDNR staff and other members of this well-trained firefighting crew spent two weeks enduring long days doing hot, dusty, smoky work to assist partner agencies in battling a dangerous wildland fire in the Pacific Northwest.”