Fighting wildfire a gritty job

Hand crew works to 'channel' blazes, earn tuition money
By Jeff Call
Deseret Morning News

SPANISH FORK — Glamorous, it is not.

Jeff Adams and Gavin Moylett, front, and John Adolphson and Nathan Shinkle pack firefighting gear. They are part of a Utah County fire crew composed mostly of students.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
"It's hot, and every bug in the world is trying to bite you," Peter Bernards says about his summer job fighting wildfires. "It's as mundane and boring as it can be — but it is necessary."
But Bernards' line of work is also demanding, exhausting and gritty.
This type of firefighting is performed in remote areas, so personal hygiene isn't a high priority.
"It's really dirty work," said Bernards, a Spanish Fork native. "My record is 15 days without a shower."
Still, Bernards, a Utah Valley State College graduate, is, well, fired up about his job. Bernards is part of a 20-member Utah County fire crew, made up mostly of UVSC and Brigham Young University students, that is dispatched to help fight wildfires around the Western United States during the summer.
The crew was established in 2003 and is sponsored by the county. It is overseen by assistant county fire warden Kevin Cortez, who recruits members and ensures that each one undergoes the required 80 hours of training.
"We're not extinguishing fires," Cortez said, "as much as we are channeling them."
The county has signed an agreement with the state's Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands, which works with the federal government to enhance wildland firefighting capabilities.
Hand crews dig lines in the dirt and clear out trees and debris to prevent blazes from spreading.
"There's a need out there for these crews," Cortez said. "Without the tremendous support of the county commission and Sheriff (James) Tracy, we wouldn't be able to have this program here. It's been a real success."
In the media, Bernards said, firefighters are typically portrayed in an adventurous fashion. That's not the reality for hand crews.







"We're not spraying water or saving lives," he said. "We're saving squirrels and trees."
Last year, the Utah County crew assisted in fighting wild fires in California, Arizona, Idaho, southern Utah and eastern Utah.
"We were never home for more than two days in a row last summer," Cortez said. "Our crew members average about 96 hours of work a week."
For Bernards, and the vast majority of the crew, firefighting is not a career goal. Bernards, for example, is set to attend nursing school at Utah State University in the fall. Fighting fires is a way to pay the bills.
"The hourly wage isn't great ($10.50), but we get a lot of overtime," he said. "I can work for 3-4 months and it's enough to get through a year of school."
Firefighting is not for everyone, Bernards said.
"You have to be in shape. This is not something an average Joe off the street can do," he said. "A lot of people want to get into this, but they don't realize the time commitment. We're called out at a moment's notice and we're gone for two weeks at a time. On the news, people see the excitement and danger of firefighting, but they don't see the mundane part of it."
As temperatures heat up, Bernards and his fellow crew members expect to keep plenty busy this summer.