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Meet the Trail Community: Wildland Firefighter

Posted by Anna Roth at Dec 18, 2017 02:44 PM |

As a helitack manager, Chris O'Brien spends much of his time managing fire and looking at trails from the air. But when he can, he heads out to volunteer, or simply take a short walk on trails near his winter home in Olympia.

We're highlighting trail users across Washington state. Hear what hiking means to them, and the future of their on-trail pursuits.

Wildland firefighting wasn’t always Chris O’Brien’s driving force. In fact, as a child growing up in Massachusetts, he didn’t even realize it was a career option. But he’s always had a connection to the outdoors. Both of his parents were avid backpackers and hikers, and his father worked in state parks, managing Beartown State Forest until Chris was 9 years old. His mother and father both ensured Chris loved spending time outside from a young age.

talking-about-the-cardinals.jpgChris enjoys spending time outside, whether he's doing trail maintenance, fighting fire or simply getting out for a hike. Photo by Anna Roth. 

The family spent summers at Benedict Pond — a lake located in Beartown — and  at Cape Cod, creating fond memories outdoors that formed the foundation of Chris' love for being outside. He joined the Boy Scouts, working his way up to Senior Patrol Leader and attending the National Jamboree. He loved the scouting experience because it offered him the chance to do more outdoor exploration. He and a group of his friends even created The High Adventure Patrol — a group of older scouts who wanted to push their boundaries. Once a month, they'd head out somewhere on an adventure that challenged them. 

Becoming a Team Player

When he started high school, Chris balanced scouting with team sports, playing basketball and soccer and running track, then continuing with basketball in college.

He also began working as a park ranger during his college summers, at Boston Harbor Island National Recreation Area.

"Six of the recreation areas’ more than 30 islands are managed as full amenities parks. Rangers there are responsible for operations of the park, including interpretation (or natural sciences education), search and rescue and trail maintenance, as well as any other tasks that come up."

It was at Boston Harbor National Recreation Area that Chris got his very first wildland fire experience, when in 2007, he found himself responding to a wildfire on the islands. 

"I only had backpack pumps and shovels to work with, so I eventually had to order the Boston Fire Department fire boat as a resource." 

With his leadership and land management experience, when Chris graduated from college, he was ready for a career in the outdoors. Unfortunately, it was 2009, and the economy wasn’t exactly booming. But he got his wilderness EMT credentials through SOLO (Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities) in New Hampshire and then headed out to Oregon.

“I knew I wanted to get more into the backcountry and try my hand at other trail building skills.”

A New Frontier

In Oregon, he found a match at Northwest Youth Corps, an organization that offers the chance to experience the backcountry and work on building trails for multi-week trips. He was a crew leader with the organization for three years, working on the Rogue, Illinois and Umpqua River Trails in Oregon, as well as the Pacific Crest Trail. He also spent time in Arizona, working primarily out of Tuscon and on trails along the Mexican border.

During his time at Northwest Youth Corps, Chris worked with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Through that partnership, he got a second introduction to, and learned more about, wildland firefighting. The career path was enticing to him.

“(Firefighting) met a few requirements for me. I liked the outdoor, hard work aspect of it. And the team driven environment — as an athlete that hit home. I liked that aspect of the work.”

chris.jpg The hard physical work and team environment of firefighting appeals to Chris. Photo by Anna Roth. 

His way forward was clear. He became a full time wildland firefighter in 2012, working on the Payette National Forest. There, he spent time working on engines and in a wildland fire module before going to helitack, which means firefighters who are transported by helicopter to fight fires. Now, he's a lead helitack firefighter for Boise Bureau of Land Management Helitack and an EMS Coordinator for the Boise BLM District.

Trails As access Points

Chris's trail building experience was a boon to getting his foot in the door with firefighting. Trail building skills may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering firefighting, but for hand crews — the folks on the ground fighting the fire — trails are invaluable to their work. In some cases, they may be the lifeline for the crew, or the path that allows materials and supplies in. 

“[Trails] are beneficial as entries and escape routes," Chris said. "We are always cognizant of access and escape routes and safety zones — it’s one of the first things we look for when evaluating a fire. If a trail is established in the area we are working, it’s perfect for a p-line. If we are going to an area without a good trail, we have to take time to cut a route in."

So trails are crucial for fighting fires. Firefighters can find themselves in a tight spot if they plan on using a trail they see on a map, only to arrive and discover it’s been overgrown or unmaintained.  And Chris says this isn’t unusual.

Firefighters rely on trails in order to have fast access to fires. If a trail is in poor condition, it can add to the time it takes to respond effectively to a fire. Photo by Anna Roth. 

“The thing we’ve started to see with a lot of forests is trails getting lost because they’re not being maintained or there isn’t the money to repair them. But a trail can make a huge difference in our ability to fight the fire. If you have a map and you think there’s a trail you can use, and then arrive and it’s unusable, that adds to response time.”

Leave it Better than you found it

Fire crews also occasionally use trails as a component of fighting the fire. Trails are a good starting point for establishing firelines, but sometimes they need to be altered in order to manage the fire and save resources (like homes and habitat). In cases like that, fire crews are careful to rehab an area they’ve used for fire management before they leave the site.

Firefighting crews rely on resources (or gear and equipment) to manage a fire. When it's out, crews evaluate the area, including trail that may have been affected, for safety and they consider how they can use the resources available to rehab the area. 

“We can build berms to block dozer lines," Chris said. "We try to put in stabilization, and water bars down fireline trails to prevent erosion. Then we rehab as needed. Basically we try to hand a good product back to local districts as we walk out the door.”

20161116_115623.jpgChris (left) keeps his trail maintenance skills fresh by volunteering with WTA when he's not fighting fire. Photo by Zachary McBride. 

Chris' position requires his presence in Boise for most of the year, but even after he's done rehabbing the last fire site, he still finds time to volunteer with WTA as an assistant crew leader when he’s in Washington during the winter months.

“I enjoy staying up on my trail maintenance skills, and I want to be sure I help make a regular impact on trails. I use them recreationally all the time, and there’s 25 years of knowledge at WTA I can draw on and learn from.”

Chris also likes to hike on trails when he's not using them to fight fire or practicing his trail maintenance skills. He categorizes those outings into two different types: training trails and recreational hikes, where he wants to enjoy the scenery. 

"Mount Walker is the best one for training. I strap on a heavy pack or a weight vest, and just charge up the hill.”

But it's a bit more difficult for him to get out and see Washington's high country on those scenic hikes. He has to be in Boise from spring to fall, so he takes in Washington's scenery on low-country trails, like Priest Point and other parks near his home. Though he doesn’t often get to visit Washington's high country, in the fall of 2014 he got lucky.

“[That year], I got home early enough to get around Maple Pass. That was cool — I finally got to see this gorgeous part of Washington between the short season of fire season and snowbanks.”

A staircase that Chris helped build at Priest Point Park last winter. Photo by Anna Roth.