Dec 15, 2016
Veterans Work on Wildfire Mitigation: Thinning Stands, Burning Acres… Changing Lives
Authors: Rapid City Fire Department
Written by Lieutenant Tim Weaver, Rapid City Fire Department
Let’s face it, when it comes to fire resilience in your community, fresh and innovative methods can be hard to come by. At Rapid City Fire Department, we have taken a unique approach to lessening the ever present danger that extreme wildfire behavior poses to our community. As outlined in a previous FAC Net blog post, we get the honor of working with military veterans (primarily from recent campaigns) to do fire mitigation work in our community. These veterans, in turn, receive a good paying wage while they are pursuing the education or training of their choice. The goal of the program is multifaceted, in that beyond wildfire mitigation, we aim to help these veterans transition between serving our country and participating in civilian life.
Numerically, the program is a huge success. We have treated 917 acres, protected 296 structures and received the 2015 Inaugural Wildfire Mitigation Innovation award, a program jointly sponsored by the National Association of State Foresters, International Association of Fire Chiefs, National Fire Protection Association and USDA Forest Service. However, many of the less measurable components—the relationships and opportunities— are the most remarkable and important components of its success. Among the benefactors is the Rapid City community, receiving both mitigation services and exposure to inspirational, perspective-shifting individuals.
We run the program with funding through the Bureau of Land Management’s Wildfire Community Assistance Program, but should you replicate the program, you could use the funding source of your choice. Rapid City provides the equipment needed to do the work and management for the program (me). I have to admit, I was initially focused on the enormous potential for acres thinned in and adjacent to our community. Trees hitting the ground, machinery running, chips flying and the smell of diesel in the air. It was going to be a beautiful, yet simple thing. Then came the time to fill our crew; that is when I first understood the nuanced benefits of this program. During the interview process, I realized that I needed to get to know these individuals, not just hire them. The program was going to be much more than just a workplace to all involved. It had the potential of being something one rarely gets the chance to be a part of in life, something that would affect our community in many different ways. And it has.
The People Behind the Work
We have had a total of 13 veterans participate in the program since we started it in 2013. Some still work with us, and the rest we helped move on to start their prospective careers. Here are a couple of their stories.
Team Member Profile: Dave Ferrier
Dave Ferrier was one of those first interviewed when we started the program in 2013. He was already working for the city as a lifeguard, finding his way after leaving active duty in the Marine Corps. Dave served with the ¼ Charlie Company as a rifleman in the Infantry, serving two deployments to the South Pacific and the Middle East. He had an air of rebelliousness when we met and a clear desire to work hard. I liked him immediately. In June of 2013, we brought on the first crew, including Dave who, like the rest of his cohort, had limited experience running a saw.
After our first summer, one of my crew leaders had moved on to another job. “I need a new crew leader Dave, and you’re going to lead them for me,” I told him. “You don’t want me to lead the crew, do you?” he said. “You’re the one Dave,” I said; “I need you to do it.” He reluctantly agreed, and over the next year he became more and more of the leader I knew he already was. Seeing his growth was really fun, as these guys were becoming more like family to me every day. Dave decided to “give the fire thing a try”, and in just a few years he has made a name for himself working his way up to lead sawyer on a Hot Shot saw team and fighting fire across the country. Dave has served our country in time of conflict and now has worked through his own conflicts to a new path in life. I’m just glad I got to be a part of it.
Team Member Profile: Brian Shearer
Brian Shearer became a part of the crew in 2014 while attending a welding school. Brian served in the Marine Corps with the 1/5 Bravo Company and the 3/5 Kilo Company as an Infantryman and a dedicated Marksman. He served as a team leader in Afghanistan in 2011 and as a combat medic on a Marine Expeditionary Unit in several countries in 2012. Like most of the new guys on the crew, Brian had limited experience working in the woods and running a saw, but he caught on quickly. His past leadership experience in the Marines was evident in his demeanor with the crew, and it was also reflected in their quick acceptance of his guidance.
As mentioned earlier, the mitigation program is designed to provide training and opportunities for the crew members to succeed. Brian was an accomplished welder, helping repair broken equipment for the crew and for other departments in the city. However, Brian had a knack for helping people, and wanted personal contact in a career—something a piece of steel couldn’t give. In the spring of 2016, I mentioned that we were hiring for permanent fire fighters. I knew the competition for these jobs was intense, but I encouraged him to apply despite his lack of fire experience. He had what we were looking for—character, honor and the desire to help those who need it—so I had a good feeling. One hiring exam, one physical agility test, and three interviews later, Brian became one of Rapid City Fire Department’s newest recruits. Well done my friend.
Could It Work For You?
These are just two of the many impressive individuals we as a community have had the privilege of working with since we started the Veteran Wildfire Mitigation Crew in 2013. Thinking both within and outside of your fire adapted communities program’s parameters, could a program like this be right for your community? A program such as this one will help you treat more acres and return more good fire, but it will also change the lives of both the participants and the hosting agencies. Rapid City Fire Department has certainly had some great wildfire mitigation successes since the program’s start, but more importantly, lives and careers have been changed for the better among its participants, including my own.