One of the great pleasures of being a small town librarian is getting to know and chat with really interesting people. A few months ago, I was having a conversation with Matthew Wiers from St. Albans when he asked if he could have an extended loan period on the books he was checking out. “I’ll be fighting fires in Alaska,” he explained. When he returned, we got talking about his experiences as a wildlands firefighter and I asked if he’d be willing to be interviewed. Between his schedule and mine, it took a while to find a day when we were both able to block out time, but last Friday, we sat down and I picked his brain for a couple hours.
Matthew grew up in St. Albans and remembers enjoying spending plenty of time outside creating his own imaginary world and being perfectly happy exploring woods and fields. Living by the dam at the foot of Big Indian Pond certainly facilitated outdoor adventure. He played golf in high school then tried several semesters at the University of Maine, but academics weren’t his thing. He headed to Boston where he spent two years working at Eastern Mountain Sports. When he was asked whether he wanted to step up to a managerial role, that’s when he realized supervision and cities weren’t for him. He headed back to Maine.
He ended up working for the U.S. Forest Service, maintaining trails in the White Mountain National Forest. After a couple years of seasonal employment, crew members were asked if they wanted to volunteer for wildlands firefighter positions. Matthew accepted the challenge and a new world opened up. His first fire, following completion of the Wildland Fire Suppression Orientation and Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior courses was in August, 2000 when he was flown as part of a 20 person fire suppression crew to Montana where he fought what he calls the Darby fire in Bitterroot Valley. He found himself taking refuge in a small open field with a line of cabins at one side. They had to set a back fine and then hoped like hell the inferno what was roaring toward them would jump the field instead of toasting everyone. Matthew recalls a veteran of many fires watching the approaching flames and saying “Remember this one. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.” It was like watching a small nuclear blast as 500 foot long tongues of flame roared through the tops of giant pine and fir trees and ripped up steep slopes.
That, he says was the hook. Since that first fire, Matthew has fought fires in Maine, Quebec, Alaska, New Hampshire, Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Minnesota. Western fires are easier to fight, because they’re in more open country and generally away from civilization (the exception being California). Wildlands fires in places like Virginia are much trickier because of the density of growth. There are far too many things for gear to get caught on and no way to run when things get hot.
The protocol and structure of the teams is pretty interesting. Generally a firefighting team has 20 members, but in a pinch that number can drop to 17, but no lower. Currently all coordination of national wildlands fire teams goes through the National Forest Service dispatch office outside of Boise, ID. During the fire season, which Matthew says is longer and more intense every year, firefighters who are current in their certification and willing to work, go on a ready roster. They usually get a call alerting them that they may be needed. How soon after the alert they actually go is extremely variable. It can be hours, but may stretch out to several weeks. Once they’re called, they’re off to an airport and fly to the fire scene. They may be gone for days or weeks. When fires are bad and numerous, it might stretch out to a month or more. It’s a good job for people like Matthew who are self employed as a carpenter and landscaper.
Each team has a crew boss, several sawyers and a lot of guys who do grunt work. They may spend hours cutting and spreading slash while building a fire break, or put out hot spots following the suppression of the majority of a blaze, but such mundane situations can turn into moments when giant walls of flame are bearing down on them and they either hunker down or run like hell. It’s those moments that make the hook even stronger.
Firefighters have to complete an annual refresher training and pass a performance test. The usual one is a three mile hike in under 45 minutes with a 45 pound pack. I asked about women in the field and Matthew says there are women in the profession with the number growing every year. This is a job where being able to do the work is far more important than sex or education. Once on a fire, crews work up to 16 hours at a time with an eight hour break between shifts. Off-duty facilities usually turn out to be a sleeping bag, a fire pit and a giant tarp under which everyone sacks out between shifts.
I asked Matthew what was the most memorable experience he’s had during his career as a wildlands firefighter. He shared two. One took him to an extremely remote area of Nevada where a fire was burning on the top of a narrow plateau. The only way to reach it was to drive across barren country for miles and then be flown by helicopter to an area near the top. He said it struck him that the crew might well be the first people to set foot on top of that peak. During the night, they were caught in a torrential downpour with lightning all around them and when the skies cleared the next morning, they could see hundreds of miles of nothing in every direction. Truly a humbling experience.
The second was when he went to Alaska to fight a fire and they had to take jet boats up remote rivers and streams to reach the site. There were times where the boat was skimming over six inches of water and going around turns so sharp where the riverbed narrowed so much, he couldn’t imagine not crashing. He showed me some video of that experience he saved on his Facebook page and I can understand why it was so memorable. In essence, he says where else can you commute to work by helicopter while seeing some of the most amazing country in America.
I asked Matthew what someone who was interested in pursuing a career in wildlands firefighting should do. He responded as follows: “Get in shape, be willing to be flexible and put in a lot of time. Understand it’s not as glamorous as what you see in the movies, contact the Maine Forest Service to find out where the 130 and 190 courses are offered and go west if you want to do this full time.”
Matthew is more than happy to answer questions writers might have about getting firefighting scenes right when writing a book. If he can’t answer the questions, he knows plenty of people who can.
Thanks John and Matthew for a fascinating interview.
I cannot even begin to imagine what fighting a fire must be like. Even were I physically capable of it (“out of shape” is an understatement; besides, I’m over 60), I simply haven’t the courage. Thank you both for this truly fascinating interview, and thank you, Matthew, for being willing and able to do a job most of us couldn’t.