SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. (AP) - Most people see the California
wildfires as a terrifying force of nature.
A few people, such as Zach Suhr of Scottsbluff, see them as the
ultimate rush.
"It's something you either love or hate. I love it," said
Suhr, a range tech firefighter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service.
"It's just a thrill, once you see your first big fire, you're
hooked," Suhr said. "To see a tree torch and to hear and see and
feel what fire can do, it's just an awesome experience."
Suhr said he got started in wildland firefighting almost
unintentionally as a teenager.
At 15 he enrolled in the Youth Conservation Corps, a summer
learn-and-earn employment program sponsored by the USDA Forest
Service to allow high-school youth to work on public lands.
Local youth work at the North Platte Refuge, which includes a
portion of Lake Minatare, Lake Winter's Creek, Big Lake Alice and
the Stateline Unit near Henry.
About five youth are employed through the program each season.
After serving four years in the YCC program, Suhr was asked to
become a range tech firefighter.
Now 23, he calls himself "a lifer."
Steve Knode, project leader at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, said although commendable and much desired, Suhr's
long-term commitment to wildland firefighting is not common.
"Most of the people we have on our crews are college students
working for good money throughout the summer," he said. "When the
season is over, they'll go back to school or other career
training."
Knode's Fire Tech unit, consisting of three to five employees,
oversees fire protection at Crescent Lake and other federal
property, including Scotts Bluff National Monument.
The unit administers prescribed burns on federal land and is
also eligible to be called out on Federal fires, such as the
current California fires.
Suhr has served on Federal calls in Montana, South Carolina,
South Dakota and Colorado. Of the possibility to serve in
California, Suhr said, `hI'm keeping my fingers crossed. I'd love
to go."
Suhr said he has respect for fire.
"There's several things that are hazardous about fighting a
fire, and a lot of it depends on the guy next to you," Suhr said.
"It's a job that's got to be done with teamwork. The fire itself
will go whenever and wherever it wants and you're only going to get
hurt if you're in its path."
Despite the obvious dangers, Suhr said he still loves his job
for its challenges and opportunity to experience the land.
"I like the traveling part of it. A lot of people have to pay
to see what we get to see," he said. "And the people you get to
work with are great. For 14 days your lives are in somebody else's
hands. You get pretty close to your team members. The fire world is
a pretty tight community."
During a mid-October wildland fire in Banner County, which was
determined to be caused by a catalytic converter on a vehicle,
approximately 30 wildland firefighters from four local fire
departments responded to fight a 500-acre range and timber fire.
Capt. Bob Cover of the Scottsbluff Fire Department helped the
ground crews as a half-dozen men were outfitted to battle the
blaze.
"It's a physically demanding job," he said. "The guys are
usually packing at least 30 pounds of equipment and tromping
through rough terrain. It's definitely a young man's game."
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On the Net:

Youth Conservation Corps Program:
http://www.fs.fed.us/people/programs/ycc.htm

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)