Understanding Fire Hero Image


Get to know 20 exceptional california wildland firefighters—many of whom are CSU students and alumni—working hard to stop wildfires and save communities.

Imagine carrying 50 pounds of gear up a mountain ridge in the scorching heat of the California summer. Thick smoke is everywhere as you wipe ash from your eyes. You're exhausted, hot, spent. As you turn to your right, your fellow crewmate gives you a smile. You and 19 others are in this together. Working as a team, you're going to help stop a wildfire from spreading.

This is what draws men and women into the world of wildland firefighting. Those who heed the call have an abiding passion for protecting forests and the communities that surround them and a drive to persevere even when the going gets incredibly tough.

Working side-by-side, hiking and camping in often remote backcountry for days at a time, firefighting handcrews do the demanding work of digging firelines around wildfires to contain them using tools like Pulaskis and chainsaws that clear away flammable vegetation.

Get to know the 20 men who worked during summer 2018 on Santa Lucia Crew 7, a Type II U.S. Forest Service handcrew based in Los Padres National Forest in southern and central California. Because Crew 7's schedule caters to seasonal employment, many California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (SLO) students studying forestry and natural resources (with a concentration in wildland fuels and fire management) have served on the team, gaining invaluable experience in fire management. 

(Editor's Note, November 2018:  Crew 7 is not currently on assignment. No members have been deployed to fight the current wildfires in northern and southern California. They will resume service after the spring 2019 semester. The images in this story were captured during the summer 2018 Holy Fire.)

Understanding Fire Hero Image

Alumnus, Cal Poly SLO (’18) 
Third Firefighting Season

Austin Lord, who earned his bachelor's in forestry and natural resources from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, says that the best days on the job are those he spends simply being in a beautiful place, doing challenging, meaningful work. 

Many students from Cal Poly and other colleges have joined Crew 7 to gain vital hands-on experience. After graduation, some go on to work in fire management positions in state or federal agencies such as CAL FIRE or the U.S. Forest Service. 

What motivates him: I want to be the best firefighter I can be. A person's ability to push through tough assignments is a big part of being good at this job.

Favorite tool: The chainsaw. Once you get in a good rhythm with your saw partner, cutting can be pretty fun. It's also really satisfying seeing the amount of work one saw team can put in. It makes a big difference in line construction.

Best day: The best days always end by "tying in," or completing a piece of fireline, after a long shift. Tying in is usually accompanied by fist bumps and a strong feeling of camaraderie and accomplishment.

Favorite meal: Any meal that gets flown in when the crew is "spiked out" away from camp. The relief of not having to eat another military ration (MRE) makes whatever is in the "hot bucket" taste pretty amazing.

Favorite way to relax: Surfing. I consider myself extremely lucky to be on a crew stationed near the ocean and I like to take advantage of that on days off. Plus, cold saltwater feels like therapy after two weeks of heat, dirt and sweat.


Student, Cal Poly SLO
Second Firefighting Season

Best day: In September 2018, we were dispatched to a fire at a ranch located very deep in the Santa Barbara backcountry. We drove for 2.5 hours off Highway 154, down insanely sketchy dirt roads to access this fire. As we crested a ridge at about sunset, we had a ridgetop view of the Ogilvy Fire. Shortly after, we saw smokejumpers jumping out of their airplanes to parachute into the fire. That's how remote this fire was. We worked until 1 a.m. cutting direct line right behind the jumpers we had just seen fall from the sky.


Student, Cal Poly SLO
14th Firefighting Season

Best day: In 2010, my crew, Salmon Helitack, was called to Jackson, Wyoming, to assist with a prescribed burn designed to enhance the habitat for Rocky Mountain elk herds in parts of Grand Teton National Park. We used drip torches along a trail to create a black line for the helitorch to come in behind us. Our burn reduced the dense stands of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir to allow for quaking aspen to regenerate and provide forage for the elk. We covered several miles of fireline that day and the total acres burned was over 2,000.


Alumnus and graduate student, Cal Poly SLO (18)
Third Firefighting Season

Best day: My favorite day this season was on the Holy Fire when we were cutting a direct fireline. While making our way through the cut, my saw team got bumped down the line to mitigate some garden vegetation that was flaring up around a mobile home and our parked trucks. We cut some flaming brush and resumed cutting line with the others before we tied in the piece of line with the Breckenridge Hotshot Crew.


Student, Cal Poly SLO
Third Firefighting Season

What motivates him: Thinking about the people that I care about motivates me to be great. I always remember the purpose of a task we are doing and how it will better the environment and safety for the public.

Best day: Cutting hot line all day, then eating spaghetti and meatballs back at fire camp.

Understanding Fire Hero Image

Student, Cal Poly SLO
Second Firefighting Season

As the foot soldiers of wildland firefighting, handcrews must travel on foot for miles with heavy gear. Tremendous physical endurance is an essential part of the job.

Crews clear flammable brush and dig firelines, creating a border that will keep a fire from spreading. When this line is close to the actual fire, it's called a "hot line" or "direct line." 

Why he does it: I joined the crew to gain valuable hands-on experience and knowledge of fighting fires. It is also a stepping stone into a fire career full of many opportunities.

What motivates him: Knowing that 19 others are going through the same thing as me.

Favorite tool: Chingadera scraping tool

Best day: My favorite day of this last fire season was getting helicoptered to the Ogilvy Fire, cutting line at night, and "spiking out" (sleeping on the line) with the crew.


Student, Cal Poly SLO
First Firefighting Season

Why he does it: Growing up in Southern California, I have memories of wildland fires affecting me and my community from a young age. This job seemed like a way where I could take an active role rather than just be a bystander. There was also a sense of thrill knowing I could combine a job and my love for the outdoors together. It's exciting going to work knowing you could end up sleeping in some national forest you've always wanted to visit.


Alumnus, Cal Poly SLO (’17)
First Firefighting Season

Best day: The first day of cutting hot line along the fire’s edge. I am a puller so I was swamping the brush as it was being cut and throwing it out of the way. I love the feeling you get after a hard shift of work knowing you pushed yourself right up to the edge of your breaking point.

Favorite meal: My favorite meal at a fire is scarfing beef fritters with gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad, chocolate milk and apple pie.


Student, Cal Poly SLO
Second Firefighting Season

Best day: On a fire in the Klamath National Forest, the crew and I worked all day keeping it from crossing over into a valley filled with homes.

Favorite meal: Whenever fire camp has spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. And don’t forget the chocolate milk!


Student, Cal Poly SLO
Second Firefighting season

Why he does it: To gain fire experience and to learn more about wildland fire as it pertains to my major.

What motivates him: The difficult parts of the job build character and can always be used as personal learning experiences.

Best day: Hanging out with the crew after a long, strenuous shift, all of us being exhausted but proud of our efforts.

Understanding Fire Hero Image

Alumnus, Cal Poly SLO ('17)
Second season firefighting

The crew uses several different types of handtools. The chainsaw is by far their favorite, thanks to its power and ability to swiftly cut away brush. 

To suppress a large wildfire, Crew 7 often works in tandem with other crews and agencies, from engine crews to more advanced hot shot handcrews.

Why he does it: I joined Crew 7 my second-to-last year of college as I transitioned out of baseball and into a new walk of life. I remember seeing my roommate Clark coming back dirty and full of good stories and I asked him right then how I could get on the crew. I think all the guys on the crew embody hard work, dedication, perseverance, humility, and loyalty and those are all qualities I want to be a part of.

What motivates him: I was humbled as a teenager by an accident that really changed my outlook on physical and mental pain. I feel lucky to be where I am at today, so when things get tough I try to just remember that at any moment my ability to attempt a physically or mentally tough assignment may be lost. In the moment, however, I like to break things down into small moments and put all my focus into each moment. That usually helps me from stressing on the whole situation.

Best day: The initial attack on the Whittier ​Fire behind Santa Barbara in 2017. Being the first or second crew to show up on the scene, we were thrown right into the mix. We got to cut hot line and direct line all night and ended up working into the next afternoon for a 23-hour shift. I learned so much and it was an amazing experience to suffer through one of the hardest shifts of my life with my brothers.

What he carries: I carry a quartz crystal that was gifted to me by my girlfriend. She told me to keep it in my "man purse" to bring the crew good luck and keep us safe.


Alumnus, Cal Poly SLO (’18)
Second Firefighting Season

What motivates him: Just knowing that there are other people in the same situation or often worse situations/conditions. In our case, there are probably other crews who have been on the fire longer, cut more line and had more difficult assignments.

Best day: Our first day on the Ogilvy Fire. We drove in for three hours on a Jeep trail and got to start work as the sun went down. It was a great experience for me to get to work with some smokejumpers out of Redding.


Alumnus, Humboldt State (15)
First Firefighting Season

Why he joined: I truly enjoy hard work and the outdoors, so this seemed like the right path to take to get involved with firefighting.

Best day: A full day’s work, soaked in sweat, dirt on our faces, and everyone is still laughing.


Alumnus, Cal Poly SLO (’18)
First Firefighting Season

Best day: I wake up without poison oak and after breakfast we get a nice mile hike in to work. Work is hard but we get a nice lunch break where I enjoy a roast beef sandwich with cream cheese and pepperoncini. We finish working and there is no hike out. Dinner is delicious with some ice cream to boot, and we’re done by 8 p.m.

Favorite meal: Honestly, I love when we get to crack an MRE (meal, ready-to-eat). Just the thought of opening food that could have been packaged a decade ago makes it taste better.


Student, Cal Poly SLO
First Firefighting Season

Why he joined: I am pursuing a career in the fire service and this crew was a great way to obtain fire experience while also finishing my bachelor’s degree.

What motivates him: Thinking about my current and future family keeps me motivated to keep going.

Best day: The first day on the Holy Fire where we had the opportunity to cut hot line and tie in with a hotshot crew.

Understanding Fire Hero Image

Student, Cal Poly SLO
First Firefighting Season

Why he joined: Firefighting is a respectable and demanding job. Crew 7 gave me an opportunity to gain my first official experience working as a firefighter.

What motivates him: Knowing that I’m doing what I love and I’ve prepared for this situation and I can handle it alongside my crew members.

Favorite class: Wildfire Suppression. It is taught by an old crew boss of Crew 7, and he taught us everything we need to know for the fire crew. It was all directly applicable.


Crew 7 Supervisor

I enjoy seeing my new firefighters accomplish something they didn’t think was possible. It could be something as simple as hiking to the top of a ridge or receiving a promotion. Their success reflects on me.


First Firefighting Season

I wanted to be a part of something that is bigger than myself. I enjoy the physical and mental challenges that come with this career.                           


Second Firefighting Season

A friend used to say, ‘You will always think you could have pushed harder once you reach the top of the hill.’


Second Firefighting Season

My best day was showing up to the Holy Fire and spending the day cutting hot line in rough terrain.                           

This article is the second in a series on the California State University's role in understanding, preventing and fighting California's devastating wildfires. Read our previous coverage on the CSU’s role in understanding fire to better predict and prevent it. 

The next story in our series coming later this month, will introduce you to Tenaya Wood, a Humboldt State student who grew up in a firefighting family.

Story: Hazel Kelly


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