USA — Deb Blais has lost count of how many fires she has fought, but it’s between 300 and 500.
She’s a crew boss from Oregon who supervises 19 firefighters. They are among 160 firefighters from Oregon and northern California who arrived in Mesa over the weekend at the Phoenix Interagency Fire Center, a staging ground until they’re dispatched to the Wallow Fire, the Horseshoe Two Fire or other blazes.
Blais’ crew works for Patrick Corp. of Redmond, Ore., a wildland fire company that supplies firefighters.
She says her job is mainly to keep her crew safe. At the same time, the work is exciting, pays well and is full of travel.
“Livin’ the dream,” she said. “You’ll hear firefighters say that a lot, ‘Livin’ the dream.’ “
Blais, 41, started firefighting as a way to pay for college when she was a physical education and health major at Eastern Oregon State College in La Grande.
“What keeps me going is the camaraderie with the crew,” she said. “The travel is a whole lot of fun, and we get to know each other pretty well when we get tired and dirty and cranky.”
Another firefighter waiting in Mesa was Gentry Richardson, part of a U.S. Forest Service crew based in Crescent, Ore. She studied fire science and emergency management at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
After a half-dozen years putting out structural fires, serving as an emergency medical technician and spending a stint in a bagel shop in New York, she took her current job.
“I switched over to the wild side,” she said with a grin.
That’s firefighter slang for working wildlands as opposed to structural fires.
“I love it,” she said. “It’s absolutely a privilege to be a firefighter. . . . I don’t want to be behind a desk.”
The daughter of a firefighter, she said the profession has changed.
“When my dad was a firefighter, it was put the wet stuff on the red stuff. Now it’s science and tactics and strategy,” Richardson said.
Part of the appeal of her job is getting to rugged places that most other people never see. Before she and her crew left for Arizona, they made sure they were in shape by climbing Oregon’s Crescent Butte in snow, starting at an elevation of 4,400 feet and going to 5,700 feet, carrying equipment of 25 to 35 pounds.
At fires, Richardson wields equipment such as a shovel, a double-headed axe and a heavy rake with a 12-inch head “that looks like Bart Simpson’s head – jagged,” she said.
Also standing by in Mesa was Michael Pennavaria, a crew boss stationed at Sisters, Ore., with GFP Enterprises, a private contractor.
“Firefighting is a huge passion of mine,” he said. “I’m fascinated with fire behavior and I love the team work, the hard work and the outdoors.”
He said civilians often have the misconception that firefighters just run around doing what they want.
“We are extremely organized,” he said, adding that the closer he gets to a fire, the safer he feels, because then he has more information about it.
Pennavaria and Blais are former “hot shots.” Pennavaria said all firefighters streaming in to help Arizona are well trained, but he described “hot shots” as being obsessed with fitness and slightly more qualified.
“They’re the Navy SEALs of the fire culture,” he said.