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Wildcat battles blazes as volunteer firefighter

Blaine Ball

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Johnny Wilson, a junior political science major, at the scene of a wildfire in the Ochoco National Forest in Oregon. The crew members of Firestorm Wildland Fire Suppression are often called in to assist with forest fires out of state. Photo courtesy of Johnny Wilson.

At up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, fires rapidly spread throughout Northern California’s forests during the Golden State’s dry summers. With almost no defense against the naturally occurring disaster, groups of trained and tested forest firefighters are called upon to protect the woodland.

Among the team of smoke jumpers is Chico State junior, Johnny Wilson.

As a member of Firestorm Wildland Fire Suppression Inc., the political science major has dedicated his past two summers to protecting Northern California’s forests from harmful fires.

Stationed in Anderson, the crew of trained firefighters work as a contracted group that take bids for forest services.

Despite having no plans of fighting fires prior to college, Wilson and his freshman year roommate were informed of the service by a member of Firestorm, and both decided to give the opportunity a shot and begin training.

“It was a five-day course, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” Wilson said. “We took a pack test, (in) which we ran three miles with a 45-pound pack on, and it was followed with another two miles.”

Wilson was not intimidated by the many aspects of fighting fires or spending much time away from home and was naturally forced to adjust to the life of a firefighter, he said.

“It was a lot to take in all at once,” he said. “Being next to fire, not going home or showering for two weeks while working 16 hours a day. But you just get used to it.”

Now as a member of Firestone, he is aware of the preparation one must undergo prior to the job.

“Once spring rolls around, I start running again, and I go out to Bidwell to hike,” he said. “Last year before summer, I even borrowed one of the (training) vests to hike in.”

While on the job, Wilson and his crew not only fight fires, but prevent them from happening in the first place.

“There will be days we don’t get right next to the fire, but most of the time we’ll see fire every day,” Wilson said. “We brush the roads so that when the fire gets there it slowly begins to stop.”

In his first summer volunteering, Wilson was 19, while the majority of fellow crew members were in their late 20s and early 30s. As a rookie to the team he was often picked on, but as time progressed a bond began to emerge, he said.

“It’s like a brotherhood,” Wilson said. “You’re with them nonstop, and you form these kinds of relationships like in the military.”

For Wilson and the crew, the danger of the job spreads even further than the fire. Aside from dislocating his knee last summer, some Firestone members have experienced injuries as extensive as chainsaw wounds, but Wilson was fortunate to never have witnessed or experienced anything as severe.

Despite the danger of the job, he often embraces the challenge of fighting fires firsthand. A good day on the job includes being upfront and personal with the enemy, he said.

“There are two best days on the job: One where you get to relax, and the day when there’s a spot fire and the flames are right in your face,” he said. “The craziest situation you can imagine — that’s a great day.”

Blaine Ball can be reached at [email protected] or @BlaineHBall on Twitter.

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Wildcat battles blazes as volunteer firefighter