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Federal program debuts all-vet firefighting units

Jan. 31, 2013 - 04:03PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 31, 2013 - 04:03PM  |  

Iraq veteran Ryan Mungall may be out of the Army, but he's in the middle of a raging firefight.

Working alongside former sailor David Van Horn, Mungall, who separated from the military less than a year ago, is dirty and black-faced from soot and soil as he digs into the side of a smoky valley in central Washington's Cascade Mountains.

"I love this!" gushes Mungall, a wide smile breaking across his sweat-streaked face as he attacks a tangle of smoldering roots with a pickax. "I get paid to hike around in these beautiful, amazing places and play with fire. It doesn't get any better than this."Mungall and Van Horn were among more than 2,000 firefighters and support personnel who battled blazes through September and into October in what became known as the Wenatchee Wildfire Complex burning across 56,000 acres. Lightning storms sparked more than 100 blazes in the region, among thousands of fires across the country that claimed 9 million acres this year.

This kind of work is a natural draw for people coming out of the military. Indeed, just like the military, it relies not only on front-line troops who battle the blazes from the ground and air, but also a wide variety of support specialists, ranging from mechanics and map makers to cooks and clerks.

That's why the Bureau of Land Management launched a pilot program that put three newly trained all-veteran fire crews into the fray this year. Meanwhile, the Veterans Fire Corps — a collaboration between the Forest Service and the nonprofit Veterans Green Jobs — is offering similar training and job opportunities.

Mungall works for an Oregon-based contractor, one of hundreds of companies, mostly in Western states, that specialize in plugging into state and federal agencies as wildfires flare up every summer.

"I knew I wanted to do wild land firefighting. It seems like one of the few jobs in the civilian sector that offers this much adrenaline," said Mungall, lighting a cigarette during a short break in the action as fires raged just over the hill. "It was too late for me to apply for any of the federal or state positions, because most of those you have to apply for in the December-January time frame at the latest."

But it's the kind of grunt work that can lead to full-time jobs with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. In fact, both agencies also offer similar seasonal work. The Forest Service alone hires about 12,000 people every summer for firefighting duty.

That's how Joshua Krecklau got started. Now a Forest Service manager who helps oversee four campgrounds in Minnesota, the former infantryman worked his first fire as a seasonal hire after leaving the Army in 2005.

"I was going to college for a degree in forest management, so it was the perfect summer job," Krecklau said. After finishing his degree — and getting recalled to active duty for a second deployment to Iraq — he landed a full-time position.

"Over the last four years, I've probably worked about two dozen fires," he says. He's done everything from helicopter crewmember duty to running an "engine crew," the wildfire-fighting equivalent of mechanized infantry.

The Forest Service taps full-time employees throughout the summer to help as needed, for tours of duty that can last anywhere from a few days to two weeks. This year, Krecklau is working security for the sprawling tent city that sprang up virtually overnight at a local state park that serves as base camp and command post for the firefighting effort.

Jim Lucas, a former Army pilot who flew OH-6 Cayuse observation helicopters in Vietnam, spent 17 years working as a contractor pilot and now helps coordinate air assets that converge on big fires for the Forest Service.

While there are 350 aircraft in the Forest Service fleet — including a pair of AH-1 Cobra helicopters that use the gunship's heat-seeing Forward Looking Infrared Radar to scout out fires — most of the aircraft are on "permanent loan" to other state and federal firefighting agencies, he said.

Instead, the Forest Service contractors do most of the heavy lifting, said Lucas, "with everything from Hueys to Skyhooks." He estimates that more than half of the contractor pilots come from a military background.

Tim Johnson, former Army intelligence officer, works as one of the camp's public information officers. Dubbed a "cooperator," Johnson is one of hundreds of volunteers from fire districts across the country who agree to remain on short-notice standby to fill in through the summer.

"Most of the time, I run what we call the ‘trap line,' posting updates on the fire on community bulletin boards and briefing various groups," he said. "This is my fourth fire this year. Over a typical four-month season, I'm gone about a month, but some years, it's been as much as 70 days."

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