Valley firefighters recount 16-hour days containing Montana wildfires

Last modified: Thursday, September 12, 2013

As wildland firefighter Sam Schilling of Northampton puts it, every fire is a new experience and no two fires are the same.

That was true on more than a dozen occasions for a group of Massachusetts firefighters, including several from the Pioneer Valley, who returned last week from a 21-day federal assignment containing forest fires in the West.

The vast majority of the 22-member crew was sent to Lolo National Forest in west-central Montana, which encompasses 2 million acres and was the scene of frequent lightning-strike fires this summer.

The crew of state Department of Conservation and Recreation and municipal firefighters split into two teams and supported local U.S. Forest Service fire management staff in initial attacks on small fires detected within two ranger districts in the national park.

Their strategy: attack the fires at an early stage, cut them off and prevent them from gaining ground.

“You’re always learning something, that’s for sure,” Schilling said of the dozen or so fires his group helped contain in steep and rugged mountain terrain.

A DCR firefighter who has battled wildland fires and managed forest lands through controlled or prescribed burning in the past, Schilling, 28, said he takes great satisfaction in helping people and protecting the country’s landscape.

“You get a great sense of fulfillment out of a hard day’s work when you know it’s saving someone’s home, saving people’s land and their way of life,” he said.

Mutual aid

The crew’s mobilization, which also included Amherst student firefighter Benjamin Miller, DCR firefighters Jesse Hanecak of Whately and Eric Rogers of Holyoke, is part of a cooperative memorandum of understanding and long-standing agreement between the state and the U.S. Forest Service. The federal government covers or reimburses all costs associated with the assignment.

The federal call to action came as fire activity increased in August in the Eastern Great Basin, northwestern states and northern Rockies. Hot and dry weather patterns with little moisture and dry thunderstorms produced hundreds of lightning strikes, which triggered extreme fire danger throughout the regions, according to DCR.

Hanecak, 29, of Whately, has been working for DCR as a seasonal firefighter since 2005. He recalled his first federal assignment a year later when he helped battle a small section of a massive 150,000-acre forest blaze in the Boise National Forest in Idaho.

“It was scary, honestly,” he said of the mega-blaze. “You step back and look at things a little differently.”

His recent trip to Montana provided a different experience in that the crews handled a series of small lightning-strike fires from start to finish in the outback, while communicating directly with forest service personnel. Hanecak was a specialist with the labor-intensive Pulaski fire tool, which he used to dig lines down to mineral soil depths to halt fires from spreading.

“The ability to work as closely as we did with upper-level forestry members was invaluable,” said Hanecak. “It was fulfilling to get on a fire from start to finish. It was definitely a great experience for me.”

Hanecak said hearing local residents in the greater Missoula area thank crew members for their work was uplifting. “It’s something we love to do as firefighters, being able to get out there and help people,” he said.

The crews worked long days, sometimes logging 16 hours, and camped out in the forest not knowing what the next day would bring. The fires they worked on ranged in size from a half-acre to 10 acres, though many worked on a 500-acre blaze in their final days. The crews received aerial fire suppression support from helicopters and planes on several occasions.

DCR’s Chief Fire Warden David Celino said the crew dispatched to Montana was predominantly a highly skilled and veteran group, in large part, because of the nature of the initial attack assignment. Apart from a bee sting, no one was injured on the trip, he said.

“It speaks volumes to the quality of the individuals and how good shape they were in to go 21 days in those conditions.” Celino said. “They did very well. I was very proud of these guys.”

The firefighters have all received special training, including coursework and a physical fitness test that requires them to hike three miles with a 45-pound pack in under 45 minutes.

“Physical fitness plays a huge role in firefighter safety,” Celino said. “It’s steep country. A lot of hiking. It’s a whole different ball game compared to municipal firefighting.”

For Benjamin Miller, a UMass student and volunteer firefighter with the Amherst Fire Department, the wildfire response was his first. He described it as a very rewarding experience. He was one of four crew members on their first federal firefighting mission. “It’s one thing to do it in the classroom settings,” said the 20-year-old Miller, who stayed two weeks before returning home. “There was a whole lot of work. We did a lot of 16-hour days.”

The Massachusetts crews were scheduled to return the previous week, but their stay was extended to help deal with additional lighting-strike fires, including the 500-acre blaze.

Celino said the firefighting partnership between states and the federal government is a mutually beneficial one and noted that the experience gained by Massachusetts firefighters serves fire operations in the commonwealth.

“The federal service, as you can imagine, relies heavily on the states for firefighting resources and the states rely on the forest service for training and financial support,” Celino said.

He said the experience firefighters gained on the Montana assignment and others can “pay huge dividends” when it comes to mobilizing fire resources, particularly during natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornados.

“The benefits to Massachusetts is that they bring back that experience,” Celino said. “It really shows when we put our staff out there.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at


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