Sandy Harbor volunteers battle western wildfires

Sandy Harbor volunteer firefighter Taylor Johnson

Sandy Harbor Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Taylor Johnson sees his future in fighting wildfires after spending two summers with a U.S. Forest Service unit. He’s currently serving on a helitack team in California. Courtesy photo

Two Sandy Harbor Volunteer Fire Department members spent this past summer fighting wildfires in the West. It was 19-year-old Hanna Randle’s first time battling big blazes. Taylor Johnson, 21, is in his second year as a member of a national fire crew. 

Johnson is currently assigned to a U.S. Forest Service helitack crew stationed in Chester, California, in the Lassen National Forest, located in the northern part of the state. Randle recently returned from three months with a Bureau of Land Management fire crew, first working in Idaho and then in Arizona. 

“Yeah, it’s tough at times, and it can be scary,” Randle said, “but it’s exciting.”

As of Sept. 24, about 30,000 firefighters and support personnel are deployed to fight dozens of major fires in the western United States. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 43,995 wildfires have burned 7.1 million acres this year, 1 million more than the 10-year average.

Now at Preparedness Level 5 — out of five levels — almost every U.S. wildfire resource is deployed. The country has turned to international partners for help.

Johnson first started looking for a national firefighting job two years ago. He landed a spot with a U.S. Forest Service crew out of Chester, which was tasked with cutting fire lines and breaks around blazes where heavy equipment couldn’t reach. 

Johnson consider himself in pretty good shape until that point.

“I was kind of shocked,” he said regarding the physical demands. 

Along with getting used to the higher altitude of the California mountains, he had to lug firefighting equipment, food, survival gear, and other necessities on his back. 

While moving between a number of fires and states last summer, Johnson became interested in the role helicopters play in battling big blazes. After returning home, he earned a private helicopter license with the longterm goal of piloting firefighting helicopters.

This past June, he returned to California as a member of a helitack unit, just across the road from where he was stationed the year before. He still heads out on initial attacks but now by chopper. After the pilot drops off the crew, they work with hand tools on fire breaks and direct helicopter water drops.

Sandy Harbor volunteer firefighter Hanna Randle
Hanna Randle of the Sandy Harbor Volunteer Fire Department at a fire in Idaho, where she worked this past summer on a Bureau of Land Management fire crew. She spent two months in Idaho and one month in Arizona. Courtesy photo

In May, Randle began applying for firefighting jobs on Indeed.com and USAJobs.gov, following up with phone calls to crew leaders. One of those calls got her a position on a U.S. Bureau of Land Management engine crew out of a field office in Shoshone, Idaho. 

Because of COVID-19, rookie training was online — not ideal but still challenging, she said.

“Three hours after graduating rookie camp, I went on my first fire,” Randle said. “It was a 1,500-acre wildfire.”

She spent two months in the high desert of south and central Idaho battling blazes. In August, the bureau sent her to work with a fire crew in central Arizona in the Bloody Basin area between Phoenix and Flagstaff, a mountainous region with triple-digit temperatures and an active fire season.

Neither Randle nor Johnson experience much fear when heading out to a blaze.

“Driving up to a fire, you prepare yourself,” Randle said. “But once you get on the fire, you get to work.”

Currently, Johnson is in California waiting for the three-beep alert signaling his next deployment. Randle is at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, where she’s studying communication with a minor in military science. She’s on track to be commissioned into the U.S. Army in June 2022. 

Both are still members of the Sandy Harbor Volunteer Fire Department, sharing their knowledge with the crew, something Chief Chris Johnson — Taylor’s dad — said benefits everyone, including Highland Lakes residents. 

One thing Taylor Johnson hopes young people will learn from his and Randle’s experience is that these job opportunities are available. 

“I don’t think young people know about them, but they’re there,” he said. “You don’t have to do it for a career, but maybe a summer or two.”

daniel@thepicayune.com

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