Fighting Fire with Family

Fighting Fire with Family

17 July 2012

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USA – Father and daughter bonding time doesn’t usually include battling fires and cutting down trees with chainsaws, unless you are Bruce and Mandi Cramer of Colman that is. The father-daughter team has been volunteer firefighters for several years and just recently returned from two weeks of fighting wild land fires out west.

Bruce, a Colman High School graduate, started as a firefighter in 1980 on the Colman Fire Department in 1980 and has been fighting wild land fires since 2000.

“I started [being a firefighter] because someone needs to do it,” said Bruce, “But I’ve stayed because I enjoy it.”

Mandi graduated from Colman-Egan High School in 2005 and became part of the Colman department in 2006.

“I grew up with it, watching dad be a firefighter. I’ve known it my whole life, but wild land fires is what got me hooked.”

She first started helping with wild fires in 2008 and transferred to the Brookings Fire Department in 2011.

The pair is part of a “strike team” composed of area firefighters from nine different departments. This last trip out west, the team headed to Spearfish on June 25 to help contain a fire that started by lightening on Crow Peak, a mountain near the Wyoming border.

While the crew initially went out to Crow Peak, help was needed elsewhere and Mandi and Bruce were eventually split up and ended up attending three different fires each during their two weeks.

The wild land firefighters can work up to two weeks at a time, with the workload easily totaling up to 100 hours each week. The crews do several jobs while on wild land duty from being on lookout duty, to burning fueling fires or even cutting trees.

“I never thought I would run a chainsaw in my life, but I’m getting pretty good at dismantling and then reassembling it,” Mandi joked.

When asked what a normal day consist of the Cramers said that it depends what the job for the day is. Most days, they get out of bed at 5 a.m., eat breakfast, briefing at 6 a.m., prep the truck and then head out to the fire for 15 to 16 hours before returning to shower, call home and fall asleep.

“It’s not for everybody,” Bruce said. “You have to enjoy living outdoors and be able to rough it.”

Mandi and Bruce had a few days of “luxury” this time around as they were able to use the Spearfish Middle School to eat and shower. Most of the time, however, the crew sleeps in tents, on cots, or on the ground. Sometimes the crew has to “spike out” and sleep on the fireline.

“There’s tons of wildlife around,” Mandi said as she described different encounters with wild animals. “I ran into a rattlesnake this last time and I was on top of the truck in no-time.”

Snakes aren’t the only wild life the crews meet, and the Cramers have met up with several animals including elk, big horn sheep and even mountain lions during their time fighting wild land fires.

“We enjoy it. Some people think we’re crazy, but we like it,” Mandi said.

Last year, Bruce spent 37 days on wild land duty and Mandi spent 21. With spending that amount of time where situations are dangerous, the two said that everyone there becomes one big family.

“Firefighters, in general, are close, but I think wild land fighters are even closer,” Mandi said.

When asked if they’ve met other father-daughter firefighters out there, Bruce said that you see often see father and son pairs, but it’s rare to see fathers and daughters fighting fires together.

Mandi has celebrated four of her birthdays on wild land fires, but she says at least she gets a birthday dinner with her dad.

“It takes a special person to do this, it’s like living with your brothers and sisters when you are out there. It can be the best time of your life and you meet the best friends of your life,” Mandi said.

She said that while working with friends it makes the dangers more real and the crews out there focus on safety and spend around three hours a day in briefings or safety sessions.

“You have to try to stay a step ahead. Your situational awareness needs to be 200 percent.”

Becoming dehydrated is a main concern while on the fire line and the two said that they expect a case of water for each person a day and a case of Gatorade per truck.

“We work long days, but we have a 2-to-1 work ratio,” Bruce said. “If you work 16 hours, you take eight off.”

While working on these fires, Mandi said that you need a big driving force and the biggest help comes from the firefighters families and employers.

“Two weeks gets to be tough on them. They deserve a lot of credit,” Mandi said.

The two are unsure when they will be called to go out again, but it’s not something they are dreading.

“People always ask how it was and I always reply ‘It was awesome.’”

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