The Department of Interior has produced a professional quality video aimed toward recruiting military veterans into firefighting jobs in the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is VERY well done and features interviews with veterans currently working as firefighters, emphasizing the common factors of teamwork and camaraderie found in both the military and wildland firefighting. Like a recruitment effort for any job, it tends to glamorize a bit, but that’s to be expected.
Not only is this likely to be effective in filling positions, it could also be helpful to our growing ranks of veterans who are exiting the military and re-entering civilian life.
But, you have to wonder how many positions the DOI expects to fill with veterans, in this atmosphere of declining budgets and shorter terms of employment for firefighters currently working.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced last week that travel company Expedia donated $50,000 dollars to Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster response organization, to fund wildland firefighting training in 2017. The funding will provide wildland fire training courses for Team Rubicon volunteers, so they can become certified as wildland firefighters and work on federally managed wildfire incidents.
In April 2015, the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) formed a partnership with Team Rubicon because many of the skills veterans learn in the military translate to wildland firefighting, such as teamwork; decisive leadership; risk mitigation and management; logistics and emergency medicine. Team Rubicon volunteers trained as wildland firefighters have responded to wildfires in Alaska, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, and most recently, the wildfire in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
“This generous donation from Expedia will allow us to train even more veterans as wildland firefighters, bolstering our wildland firefighting response capabilities across the country. In a time of climate change and thus, longer, more intense fire seasons, we are constantly looking to further our partnerships, such as this one, to expand our wildland firefighting force,” says Chuck Russell, BLM’s Veteran Coordinator.
The BLM plans to hold wildland firefighting training sessions for Team Rubicon members in California, Texas, Florida, Idaho, Washington, Colorado and Washington D.C. throughout the next year. The sessions educate Team Rubicon members in wildland fire suppression tactics, including communication techniques, fireline construction, equipment operation, and other critical wildland firefighting skills.
By engaging veterans in disaster response, Team Rubicon seeks to provide them with a sense of purpose, community, and identity often missing following their military service. Since two Marines founded Team Rubicon in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the organization has responded to over 160 floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and other severe weather damage, helping disaster survivors all over the globe.
“It just makes sense to match our veterans’ skills with wildland firefighting,” said Russell. “Team Rubicon volunteers already understand critical aspects of the wildland fire program, such as our Incident Command System, and veterans have the work ethic we need in wildland firefighting. Expedia’s donation will not only allow us to train qualified veterans as wildland firefighters, the money will provide opportunities for veterans to pursue wildland firefighting jobs, which are often a great opportunity for post-military service careers.”
Above: Aravaipa crew superintendent Greg Smith, center in black shirt, briefs the crew on the thinning project in the Garden Canyon area of Fort Huachuca.
The photos and article are by Tom Story
Greg Smith has had more preparation than usual to get his crew ready for the upcoming fire season. He is starting the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Aravaipa hand crew from scratch and the task is almost complete.
“This is unique. I know the overhead, most of the overhead, but we know nothing about any of the seasonals, except on paper”, said Mr. Smith. “We are trying to do a veterans crew and right now the numbers are 75 percent vets”.
“The reason that the numbers aren’t higher”, Mr. Smith continued, “is because there aren’t a whole lot of vets with the experience at those higher GS levels; the captain and squad boss positions. All the old vets have moved on into higher up positions or got away from the fire service in general. So now we’re getting a new group of entry-level folks”.
“I was able to pick up a few non-vets with extensive experience: three or four years on a shot crew, which brings a lot to the table where you are starting a new crew” said Mr. Smith who had learned earlier that “strong overhead is key”.
The crew’s overhead positions are all Jackson Hotshot alumni. Mr. Smith brought with him to Sierra Vista both his assistants, Wade Irish and Ryan Hagenah, one of the squad bosses, Anthony Ashalintubbi, and a former squad boss, Daric Burrwith.
“I think we have a pretty good blend. At least seventy-five percent of the crew have some fire experience. Some of the vets came from the vet program. I picked up quite a few of those folks”, continued Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith started his wildfire career in Arizona with the Coconino National Forest’s Flagstaff Hotshots in 1993 after serving in the Navy. Two years later he moved to the Globe Hotshots on the Tonto National Forest where he spent the next thirteen years, eventually becoming the crew’s superintendent in 2001.
In late 2007, he moved to the Northwest Fire District, outside of Tucson, AZ to help convert Northwest’s highly regarded Type Two Initial Attack crew into a Type One crew. They achieved Type One status in October of 2009, becoming the Ironwood Hotshots. Mr. Smith ran the crew until the Fire District disbanded the crew in 2014. He then joined the BLM and moved to Mississippi to become superintendent of the Jackson Hotshots.
According to BLM State Fire Management Officer Kelly Castillo, in 2015 the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) approached the Arizona State office of the Bureau of Land Management about hosting Mississippi’s Jackson Hotshots early in the fire season. “We said yes, but hotshot crews are expensive”, said Mr. Castillo “and being frugal we asked the Gila District folks to find a housing solution”. The district contacted Brad Nicholson, Chief of the Fort Huachuca Fire Department, with the idea of hosting the crew on the Army base adjacent Sierra Vista, Arizona. Chief Nicholson was very enthusiastic about the idea and worked with the base commander to allow the crew to use some available dormitory space. After the BLM and the Army drafted a formal use agreement the Jackson Hotshots completed a successful multi-week tour of southern Arizona in 2015.
“The idea of starting a crew in southern Arizona grew out of bringing Jackson down early in the 2015 season” continued Mr. Castillo, “and since the BLM has a history of having veterans crews, it made good business sense to base them at the Fort”. Besides having the crew be all veterans, the other goal was to have them attain Type One (hotshot) status within three years.
“NIFC allocated the funding for the crew start up and for the remodel of an unused motor pool facility on base” said Mr. Castillo “as well as an increase in annual preparedness funding”.
Mr. Castillo also indicated that the presence of the Aravaipa crew at Ft. Huachuca will serve as a recruiting tool for those in the military looking for opportunities following their military service.
The crew is expected to become available for fire assignments around April 25th.
Team Rubicon organizes veterans to provide relief to those affected by natural disasters, both domestic and international. Their mission is to “unite the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams.” Much of what they do is volunteer work, but they have been busy lately training veterans to fill various firefighting roles. Several groups of Team Rubicon folks have gone through basic wildland firefighter training. A typical class is described in a blog on their website.
Today we saw a tweet about one of their fire classes and in looking around, found quite a few more that were related.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced today the creation of a new hotshot firefighting crew in southern Arizona. The establishment of the crew responds to a nationwide increase in wildfire activity and the need for additional skilled personnel. The crew will be stationed at Fort Huachuca thanks to a partnership between the BLM and U.S. Army.
Recruitment for the crew will emphasize the selection of military veterans, consistent with BLM’s national emphasis on bringing veterans into the wildfire workforce. The BLM’s long-term goal is for a crew made up entirely of veterans.
“Bringing a new elite firefighting unit into Southern Arizona will benefit the communities we serve and recognize the dual need for additional firefighting resources and quality employment for military veterans,” said BLM Arizona State Director Raymond Suazo.
The crew will be the only hotshot crew (also known as a Type 1 crew) in Southern Arizona and one of only 12 BLM hotshot crews nationwide. Hotshot crews are the most skilled and highly trained units among wildland fire personnel, meeting stringent requirements established by interagency fire managers and routinely engaged with the most complex wildfire incidents.
The crew will increase the availability of wildfire resources locally in Southern Arizona and at the national level. Proactive measures to prevent high severity fires, such as fuel treatments and prescribed burns, will occur when the crew is not engaged with an active wildfire.
The BLM partnered with the U.S. Army at Fort Huachuca (map) to provide barracks space to the crew through a lease.
“We are proud to provide a base for the new BLM hotshot crew. Our support is another way Fort Huachuca contributes to the safety and security of our community, Arizona and the nation,” said U.S. Army Garrison Fort Huachuca commander Col. Thomas A. Boone.
A nationwide evaluation of personnel needs completed by BLM Arizona and the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho led to the creation of the crew. 2015 marks another record-breaking wildlife season for the western United States with over eight million acres burned to date throughout the country. BLM continually evaluates the preparedness of the fire program and the ability to respond to wildfires threatening public land resources and surrounding communities.
The crew will be managed by the BLM Gila District. “We are thrilled to bring these benefits to the region and provide career paths for our firefighting community,” said Timothy Shannon, BLM Gila District manager.
The Student Conservation Association has released the name of the person who became ill while taking a firefighter fitness test, the Pack Test, and passed away shortly thereafter. Below is the text of the SCS news release:
SCA mourns the loss of member Ian Haxton
With great sadness, SCA reports that Ian Haxton of Winchester, VA and a member of our Veterans Fire Corps, has passed away unexpectedly while serving at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Sasabe, AZ.
The Veterans Fire Corps trains recent-era military veterans for careers in wildﬁre mitigation. Ian, a veteran of the US Army, was participating in a federal ﬁre ﬁghter pack test on Saturday, June 6, when he collapsed near the end of the course. Emergency medical teams on site for the exercise responded immediately. Regrettably, despite their best efforts, Ian died en route to a nearby hospital. Results of an autopsy are pending. Ian was 31.
Under the ﬁre ﬁghter pack test, individuals are required to complete a three mile course while wearing a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes. Ian entered into the Fire Corps program on May 17th, 2015.
SCA is providing all available support to his family, his corps mates, and our Fish and Wildlife partners. We are also cooperating with local authorities, and ask that you join us in keeping Ian and his family in your thoughts and prayers.
The U.S. Fire Administration issued this information about the fatality:
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) has received notice of the following firefighter fatality:
Name: Ian Haxton Rank: Veteran Fire Corps Crewmember Age: 31 Gender: Male Status: Wildland Part-Time Years of Service: Pending Date of Incident: 06/06/2015 Time of Incident: 0800hrs Date of Death: 06/06/2015 Fire Department: Student Conservation Association – Veteran Fire Corps
Incident Description: Veteran Fire Corps Crewmember Haxton suffered a medical emergency and collapsed 200 yards from the finish line while participating in the Wildland Firefighter Work Capacity Test. Medical care was immediately rendered by local emergency medical responders who had been staged on-site for the test. Crewmember Haxton was transported to an Advanced Care Facility where he passed away from a nature and cause of injury still to be determined. At the time of the fatal incident, Haxton was serving at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Sasabe, AZ, preparing for a series of prescribed burns scheduled to take place at the Refuge.
Incident Location: Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Sasabe, AZ