Sacrifice of Twisp River firefighters inspires new recruits

Mar 15, 2016, 8:30 AM | Updated: Jun 1, 2016, 10:04 am

In August 2015, fires in Okanogan County grew more than 100 square miles in just a day, forcing ent...

In August 2015, fires in Okanogan County grew more than 100 square miles in just a day, forcing entire towns to be evacuated in the middle of the night. The deadliest fire was the Twisp River Fire, which claimed the lives of three firefighters and critically injured Daniel Lyon. (AP File Photo)

(AP File Photo)

Firefighter Daniel Lyon faced 60-foot columns of fire and smoke as black as night when his team took on the Twisp River Fire last summer.

“On August 19, that was definitely the scariest day of my life,” Lyon said.

Related: Daniel Lyon recovers from injuries after fighting Twisp wildfire

Lyon suffered burns on 60 percent of his body when his truck was overtaken by flames. Three other firefighters in the vehicle with him were killed that day in Okanogan County.

Washington has seen two years of record-breaking fire seasons, more than 390,000 acres up in smoke between June and September of 2015, and 250,000 acres in 2014.

But as the state prepares for the next round of wildfires expected this summer, rather than seeing people shy away, the State Department of Natural Resources is reporting more applications than ever from people who say they’re inspired by the sacrifice of those three firefighters in Twisp.

So, what does it take to fight wildfires?

“It involves wearing a 45-pound pack and you have 45 minutes to do a three-mile course. So, if you can do that &#8212 45 pounds, 45 minutes, three miles &#8212 you can be a firefighter,” said Trevor McConchie with the Department of Natural Resources.

For seven years, McConchie has worked everywhere from hot shot crews to his current post as a fire chopper crewman. He said the physical exam aspect of the application will test everything you’ve got, just like out in the field. Recruits will be running up hillsides in 100-degree weather, racing flames from a fire that’s ripping through a rural community, and trying to cut it off before it hits a nearby town.

For the summer 2016 fire season, which usually runs from mid-June to September, DNR is hiring at least 461 firefighters. The application period began in mid-December and runs through April 30.

When thinking about firefighters, many picture a superman, 6’3″ tall, who can bench 250 pounds. But according to McConchie, that stereotype is completely wrong. Anyone can be a firefighter if they’re determined enough.

“Some of the best firefighters that I’ve worked with are 5’2″, petite women who can kick my butt going up a hill,” said McConchie.

Applicants do have to be in good physical shape, but don’t have to know anything about fire. You just have to be 18-years-old, have a high school diploma or a GED, a driver’s license, and be able to drive a stick shift. The state will put you through a rigorous training program up to a week long to learn techniques like building a fire line and tracking fire behavior.

But what hopefuls must have that nobody can teach is guts and grit. Because once you get out on the fire line in Central Washington, McConchie says however hard you thought it was going to be, it will be worse.

“You are exerting yourself in a very, very, very powerful way by digging line and doing what else needs to be done. And then at the same time, you know, your body is saying ‘I need oxygen because I’m working really hard.’ But then the smoke billows into your face and you’re trying to just take in deep breaths but all you’re breathing in is smoke,” said McConchie. “And sometimes the best thing to do is just hold your breath.”

Crews usually work 16-hour days on 14-day rotations, but can go 21 days without a break.

McConchie says during that time, you’ll have to learn to be OK with being really uncomfortable.

“You’re sitting there digging line, the fire’s burning your face and you’re worried about your contacts melting into your eyeballs,” he said.

Despite that, the state has gotten hundreds of applications already.

For those who can’t dedicate an entire summer to the effort, local fire districts are always looking for volunteers to take on wildland fires or “all hazard” work. And Kittitas County has seen people step up like never before, with dozens of people calling in and asking how to help. They’ve been able to train one volunteer a month since last year’s Sleepy Hollow Fires ripped through the area.

Although the job isn’t easy, McConchie said he’s gained so much from it: an irreplaceable toughness, a family of wildland firefighters, and experience that’s helped propel him to his current day job as strategic advisor to Washington’s state forester.

“When you work with some of these communities, and you do the work to make sure that if that fire comes by their home, that you’ve done all the prep work that you can to give that home the best opportunity to survive. Or, you were able to stop that fire from burning another 10,000 acres due to some of the work that you’ve done.”

And that, said McConchie, is what makes it worth it.

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Sacrifice of Twisp River firefighters inspires new recruits