Behind the helmet: Wildland firefighter battles more than flames

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GRAND JUNCTION, Colo (KKCO)-- While many people run away from the wild land fires, Jacob Desserich heads straight into the flames, with his team from the Bureau of Land Management, Grand Junction Field office.

Desserich is in his 17 years as a wild land firefighter and currently serves as an engine captain.

“I take a lot of pride in my crew and my truck,” Desserich said.

He opens the bins on the side of the truck filled with backpacks, hoses, shovels and all the gear possible, including a chainsaw.

He reaches inside his pack, and pulls out a yellow shirt.

“So we have the Nomex shirt, leather gloves, Nomex pants, leather boots, a hat, and eye protection, ear protection,” Desserich said.

The yellow Nomex shirt looks like an everyday button up shirt at first. It's not fire resistant, but he said it wouldn't melt to his skin like polyester.

“So basically the gear for a wildland firefighter, it’s not like a structural gear,” Desserich said.

A structural firefighter may be sent into a burning house wearing gear to protect them from direct contact with the flames.

A wild land firefighter has different concerns.

“We’re out in a hundred degree heat along a fire. Working alongside a roadway, whatever it is, it’s hot. It’s a 110, 120 degrees," Desserich said. "You have to have gear that will breathe and allow that. If not you’re going to go down with heat exhaustion."

The air outside can still be greater than 100 degrees. He said it’s still cooler than inside the fire. If he's lucky, he said a breeze will help cool the burning wood when it's taken away from the fire.

Depending on the job, they could hike up to five miles into the woods carrying all the equipment they will need. The firetruck can't always travel were people can.

“So by the time you’re all said and done, a typical wildland firefighter will have anywhere between... 50 and 70 pounds,” Desserich said.

His pack also carries a space blanket. Sometimes he has to sleep on site near a fire, and uses the space blanket to protect him from the elements of the outdoors.

“So basically a tarp is what it essentially is. You roll up in it on the ground and have a good night’s sleep,” Desserich said.

It keeps body heat in and moisture out, but it doesn't protect him from unexpected flames.

“You have a fire shelter on the bottom of (the pack) that weighs five pounds,” Desserich said.

The fire shelter is only used as a last resort. When there is no where else to go.

It is stronger than a space blanket, but it still doesn't fully protect him from the flames. A fire shelter can help a firefighter survive the extreme heat.

“I believe that thing can go up to 2000 degrees before they start basically melting away,” Desserich said.

He can fit four liters of water in his pack, but he said that isn't enough.

“One gallon of water will not suffice a wild land firefighter throughout an eight hour day,” Desserich said.

He said he needs about a gallon every hour.

“Not only are you hot, you’re soaking wet on the inside and you just keep going, and hopefully people will support you with bringing you more drinking water,” Desserich said.

Keep in mind, sometimes he has to hike five miles without a firetruck holding the water necessary to fight a fire.

Many times they can call and receive water from air support.

“We can’t always rely on aircraft. You always have to have a backup plan,” Desserich said.

That’s when they have to dry mop.

“We go in. we dig a line around the fire. We cut the trees down that are burning. We basically pull them out of the heat, pull everything out of the heat,” Desserich said. “It’s a very dirty job, it’s not for everybody,”

Battling a fire, he never knows when he’s coming home.

“You don’t get to take a shower every night so you’re pretty filthy and you sleep on the ground,” Desserich said.

He has spent 21 days on a fire before.

“It is very tough to be away from your kids, and your family,” Desserich said.

Summers are long, he said, but on the flipside he has more time to spend with his family during the winter.

“It’s rewarding, but it’s also grueling,” he said.



 
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