It’s hot. It’s hard to breathe. Work has now been going on for over 24 hours. And there is no coffee.

This may sound like a bad dream, but for firefighters like Andy Vale, “It’s a pleasure.”

Vale is a University of Montana student who spent this summer serving as a wildland firefighter for the Superior Ranger Station and described fighting the Firestone Flatts Fire near Arlee, Mont., as his most frightening experience.

“The fire jumped the road and at that point, we were surrounded by fire,” Vale said. “Visibility was limited, breathing was difficult, and at that time the fire behavior required decisive action.” 

The fire was climbing up the trees and jumping from tree-top to tree-top. Smoke forced back three helicopters summoned to assist. To control the situation, Vale’s crew was able to use a bulldozer to build earth barriers to stop the fire’s progress before it could reach nearby houses.

“It was probably the most adrenaline-packed moment of my season,” Vale said.

Vale is a fourth year nursing major at UM and this year was his first serving as a firefighter.


 

“I just get such an adrenaline rush from the job and I know that what I’m doing is important,” Vale said.  “That’s all that I need to keep going. That, and lots of food and water.


 

This summer, Vale worked for the US Forest Service in Superior, Mont., where he assisted in dousing fires including the West Mullan Fire, Firestone Flats Fire and several smaller fires across the state. Vale was also sent to Colorado when the Gulch Fire and Royal Gorge Fire threatened to overwhelm local forces.

“Firefighters are always working,” Vale said, who only had one day off during the entire month of June.

Chase Hulett, another UM student, is a media arts major who fought fires for the state of Montana this summer in Stillwater State Forest.  Though he was only 18, Hulett traveled all around Montana and Wyoming to assist firefighting efforts.


 

“It was way more fun than I thought and it paid good money,” Hulett said. “It’s better that working for 7-Eleven.


 

With smoke steadily filtering into the Missoula Valley from fires around the state and nation, it’s easy to concentrate on the downsides of dealing with the hazy weather here and forget about the blazes being battled everyday. Several student firefighters on and around UM’s campus, however, know the realities of firefighting.

Montana airshed coordinator Laura Ward said about a third of Montana’s total summer firefighting workforce (about 200 people) is made up of students. At the Ninemile Ranger Station alone, there were seven student firefighters, all but one of whom was a UM student, said Jeff Hayes, an employee of the Ninemile Station. 

There are over 1,140 firefighters currently fighting 21 fires around Montana, according to the Incident Information System’s report for Sept. 4. The report also showed that Missoula’s closest fire, the Lolo Creek Complex Fire, has 205 firefighters, working on it alone. These and other national fires are contributing to the smoky haze spreading across Missoula.

As of Wednesday, Lacy Evans, the state air quality meteorologist, reported that the air quality of Missoula was “good” on the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s web page, which means health effects should not be a concern.

There is still concern, however, for those out fighting the fires. 

“As someone who is now off duty, my main concern is for firefighter safety,” Vale said.

For those who wish to join for next season, there are applications that can be found on the US Fire Service’s website as well as on that of the Montana Firefighting Testing Consortium.  Vale and Hulett suggest visiting the department you want to work at, making sure you’re in shape and letting your possible employer know about any skills you have received through school or work.


 

“It’s not all brawn out there,” Vale said. “You’ve got to learn to think for yourself, and make intelligent decisions under stress.


 

Both Vale and Hulett plan to fight fires again next summer.

Now that he’s back, Vale said he is eating better, sleeping better and just generally feeling better. But even after a fire is out, he finds it still burns in his mind.

“I saw a smokejumper plane on campus today,” Vale said, “and I zoned out for a few minutes watching it pass over because I love to firefight and I really miss it right now.”



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