Member of veterans hand crew dies in off-duty accident

By Francis Starr O’leary

Christopher Kendrick
Christopher Kendrick (photo from the gofundme page)

Christopher Kendrick, a wildland firefighter, died while off duty July 4 when the car in which he was a passenger crashed on the way to an Independence Day fireworks display in Ukiah, Oregon. He is survived by his wife, Gabrielle, and their two-month-old son, Cecil. 

The 29-year-old Kendrick was a crew member on the Umatilla Veteran Crew (UVC), a Type 2 Initial Attack Hand Crew based out of the North Fork John Day Ranger District of the Umatilla National Forest in northeast Oregon.

Before becoming a wildland firefighter, Kendrick spent seven years in the U.S. Air Force, serving as a military policeman, reaching the rank of Staff Sergeant before being medically discharged due to an illness he contracted during his second deployment to Afghanistan. Treatment for the disease included surgery to remove several feet of Kendrick’s small intestine, his gall bladder and his bile duct. 

Despite these medical setbacks, Kendrick remained undaunted and determined to continue serving his community. He chose to do so as a wildland firefighter. His first year of firefighting saw him serve on a BLM engine in Boise before joining the UVC for his sophomore year.

“He was really driven,” UVC Crew Supervisor Sam Bowen said. “After his injuries in the Air Force, he was really determined to find something similar to the military, a physical and mental challenge, as much to prove it to himself that he still had it as anything. I think he really found that in this job.”

Kendrick’s doggedness showed throughout his time with the UVC, according to crewmembers. During trying physical activities, he would tell his crewmates “I will die before I quit.” Those physical trials included the crew’s annual 12-mile training hike, which the crew said he completed without issue. Kendrick also participated in the UVC’s annual “Freedom Run,” a 17.76-mile run to celebrate the Fourth of July. Kendrick and the rest of the crew completed the run just three days before his passing.

The UVC has established a gofundme to support the Kendrick family during this period of mourning. 

A fire crew made up of veterans

Folsom Lake Veterans, a Type 2 Initial Attack Crew

Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew
Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew. BLM photo.

By Jennifer Myslivy & Erin McDuff

It just makes sense to match our veterans’ skills with wildland firefighting. From teamwork to decisive leadership; risk mitigation to management; logistics to emergency medicine, many of the skills our veterans learned in the military translate to wildland firefighting.

The Bureau of Land Management launched a Veteran Fire Crews program in 2012 to provide more jobs for veterans while benefiting from their vast experience and increasing the number of wildland firefighters available during our increasingly severe wildfire seasons.

Folsom Lake IHC logoThe Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew in California combines military veterans with seasoned wildland firefighters to form this type 2 initial attack hand crew, which is responsible for constructing fire lines while also capable of separating into smaller squads to conduct initial wildfire suppression activities.

This crew provides an opportunity for veterans to learn about the wildland fire management field and gain critical skills that will prepare them for a full career in wildland firefighting.

Meet Conell McKinney

Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew
Conell McKinney, Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew. Photo by Joe Bradshaw, BLM.

An Army veteran from Santa Clarita, California, Conell McKinney served in the infantry.
He now works as a wildland firefighter with the Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew. “The self-discipline the Army instilled in me helped quite a bit with my transition to wildland firefighting and with understanding how to operate in less-than-ideal environments,” he explained.

The advice he would like to share with others that may be interested in wildland firefighting is, “Train hard. The work is like nothing you’ve done before!”

Meet Roger Hooper

Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew
Roger Hooper, Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew. Photo by Joe Bradshaw, BLM.

During the 2021 fire season, the Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew trained 200 active-duty Army soldiers stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord who were dispatched to assist with wildfire suppression operations.

Roger Hooper, a crewmember and infantry veteran from Nevada City, Nevada, noticed many military skillsets that helped the soldiers transition in firefighting, including hard work, discipline, the ability to stay calm in complex situations, teamwork, and resource management.

When asked for advice for those interested in wildland firefighting, Hooper said “Maintain good physical shape and apply for a variety of fire jobs because there is one out there that you will enjoy!”

Meet Jaime Velasquez

Jaime Velasquez is a crewmember from Sacramento, California. He’s a veteran of the National Guard and served as a water purification specialist. He came to the Bureau of Land Management with prior firefighting experience from when his National Guard unit was activated by the state to fight wildfires in 2014.

Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew
Left: Jaime Velasquez serving in the National Guard. Photo courtesy of Jamie Velasquez. Right: Jamie Velasquez serving on the Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew. Photo by Joe Bradshaw, BLM.

During the Joint Base Lewis-McChord deployment this season, Velasquez enjoyed seeing how motivated they were to learn the job and the opportunity to hear some of their stories and experiences.

Firefighting Job Opportunities for Veterans

Are you a veteran, or do you know a veteran, who is looking for a new, exciting career? For anyone who wants to work in a field that is physically and mentally challenging, gets you outdoors, provides opportunities for travel, delivers occasional spikes of adrenaline, and serves the greater good, wildland fire checks a lot of boxes and can benefit from the expertise of veterans.

The Interior Department is hiring to fill hundreds of wildland fire management jobs this fall. The positions are located throughout the country, and more are posted on each day.

You can learn more about working in wildland fire on our website. Before you start on an application, check out, along with these pro tips and video tutorials on how to apply.

We promise, it’s not your ordinary job!

Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew
The Folsom Lake Veterans’ Crew at the Dixie Fire in California, 2021. Photo by Joe Bradshaw, BLM.

Jennifer Myslivy is a public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with the Office of Wildland Fire.

DOI video recruits veterans

Above: screengrab from the video.

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.

Company donates $50,000 to train veterans as wildland firefighters

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.”

Creating the Aravaipa hand crew

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.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Greg Smith, superintendent of the Ariavaipa Hand Crew.

“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.

Aravaipa fire crew
Arturo de Leon cuts and Shane O’Farrell swamps as the Ariavaipa crew thins vegetation near a recreation site in the Garden Canyon area of Fort Huachca.

“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.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Squad Boss Anthony Ashalintubbi (center) coaches Aravaipa crew members Zach Wolf (left) and Sean O’Malley on safe chainsaw handling while limbing of trees on the ground.

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.

Aravaipa hand crew fire
Cory Hall (left) and Ben Evans work on one of the new saws.

“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 trains firefighters

The photo above is from the Team Rubicon website.

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.