Veterans sought for firefighting crew

Veterans sought for firefighting crew

11 April 2012

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USA — If you are an Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran in good physical shape and seeking a job with a challenge, you may want to give Nolan Yocum a call.

“As long as they have the ability to hike, dig a line and work up to 16 hours a day for 14 days straight, that’s what we’re looking for,” Yocum said.

A veteran firefighter with a decade of fire seasons under his belt, Yocum, 29, will be the superintendent of a 10-member firefighting squad of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans being formed on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Medford District.

“They will be part of a national resource, traveling to wherever they are needed to fight fires,” he said, although their first priority will be fires in the district, followed by BLM property around the state.

Training is scheduled to begin June 17, but Yocum has a deadline to have the 10 firefighters signed up by the end of April.

The team is one of three being organized in Oregon and Washington, including a 20-person team in Klamath Falls and another 10-member team in Spokane. Several other teams of young veterans are being mustered in California and Nevada.

The teams are part of a nationwide program by Uncle Sam to put young veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters to work and on a career path. The program was announced by President Obama in 2009.

“This is an incredible opportunity to bolster out our firefighting crew with returning vets,” said Tim Murphy, the BLM’s national assistant director for fires and aviation, in a prepared statement.

“Veterans are physically fit, motivated people who are used to working in team configurations,” he added. “They are comfortable working outdoors in rugged and sometimes hazardous settings. They make a natural fit as wildland firefighters.”

The Medford District has long used firefighters from the Oregon Department of Forestry for its first line of defense against wildfires. However, BLM officials say the new team will augment ODF firefighters who also cover private, state and county brush and forestlands.

When the region is hit by a big lightning bust as it invariably is in the summer, they’ll be able to help ODF and other local firefighters chase down the smokes, said district spokesman Jim Whittington, a veteran firefighter.

Although the district does not currently have a team of firefighters at the ready, it does have personnel doing other tasks who have trained as firefighters and can assist the ODF and others, he said.

“This crew will be based here in Medford,” he said. “When there are no fires to fight, they will be doing fuels treatment work designed to reduce hazardous wildfires. During fire season, they will become firefighters.

“The idea is to keep folks employed throughout the year,” he added.

While there are no age requirements, it is likely most of the applicants would be relatively young, given the fact they were just in the military, Whittington said.

“Firefighting is a young person’s game,” he said. “There is a lot of up and down work. Your knees get a little creaky as you get older.”

The squad will be a Type 2 hand crew, meaning members will have the training and expertise to be deployed to most fires. A Type 1 team like a Hotshot crew is sent to the most dangerous blazes.

“We will probably ease them into it,” Whittington said. “You don’t want to put anyone in front of a fire until they get some experience and develop some crew cohesion.

“But recent veterans are very attuned to group dynamics,” he added. “It should go very smoothly. A lot of things we do we borrow or share with the military.”

The jobs are entry-level positions, said Yocum, a 2002 graduate of Lakeview High School.

“If someone has wildland fire experience, that’s fine,” Yocum said, noting someone starting out will earn $11.95 an hour. “If they have a little fire experience, they’ll receive $13.41 an hour.”

A squad boss will receive $15 an hour, he added.

However, there is high potential for overtime pay as well as hazardous duty pay, officials said.

The team is open to both men and women. Each applicant will be screened to ensure he or she is up for the job, both physically and mentally, officials said.

“I’m very excited about getting some of these veterans back to work,” Yocum said. “There aren’t a lot of jobs out there.”

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