By Paul Fattig
Armed with a fire hose attached to a pump that’s pulling water from a fold-a-tank, firefighter Jeff Darner kept a fire-drowning spray on the tree in front of him.
Behind him, fellow firefighters Charles Dusenberry and Michael Tucker worked to keep the engine running and the water flowing.
The men are veterans whose experience in the military will be counted on as members of Team 10, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management squad of wildland firefighters that includes 10 young military veterans on the 20-person team.
Based at the BLM’s Medford District, the team has grown out of a nationwide program by Uncle Sam to put young veterans to work and on a career path.
It is one of three teams being organized in Oregon and Washington, including one in Klamath Falls and another in Spokane. Several other teams of young veterans are being mustered in California and Nevada.
There was no fire consuming the tree Darner was hosing down. The firefighters were participating in a field readiness review on Thursday at the U.S. Forest Service’s J. Herbert Stone Nursery in Central Point. They have completed their firefighting training and are now ready to do battle on the front lines.
They expected to be shipped out to a fire in either Colorado or Wyoming this weekend.
Like many military veterans, Darner, 35, of Grants Pass, who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division from 1997 to 2001, has firefighting experience. The former corporal worked as a wildlands firefighter for Grayback Forestry during the 2011 season.
In between jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft for the Army and last year’s season of fighting fire, he had worked in Hawaii for a mountain-bike firm.
But he and the others will tell you that what they learned in the military is always there, ready to step forward when called.
“Veterans bring a lot of camaraderie,” Darner said. “We have each other’s backs at all times. And we know the mission is always first — get the job done.”
Never mind that the job will likely include long, dusty hikes with a heavy pack to a fire where they’ll dig fire lines for up to 16 hours a day for 14 days straight.
“The veterans fit in great with the rest of the firefighters,” observed Nolan Yocum, 29, a firefighter for 10 years who is the team leader.
“Their maturity level is there,” he added. “They are willing to take charge and take on responsibilities.”
In fact, the command structure of a firefighting unit is very similar to that of the military, he said.
“They are all hard workers,” he said. “I’m very pleased with everyone we got. They will put a lot of people to shame.”
Team 10 contains 10 military veterans, with Forest Service and BLM firefighters rounding out the 20-person crew, Yocum said. The veterans represent the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and National Guard.
Team 10 will perform well, predicted Kevin Donham, fire staff officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, who was helping with the readiness review.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said of recruiting military veterans. “We’ve always had veterans in our crews. But to single out those who have served their country in the military and give them an employment opportunity to help take care of the natural resources … I couldn’t be happier. It’s what we need to do.”
He expects the U.S. Forest Service to follow suit.
“That discipline they bring from the military side just ties with what we are doing on the fire-fighting side,” he said. “It’s the right fit. And we need the help. We can never have too many firefighters.”
Central Point resident Mallory Conroy, 23, a nursing student at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, who has been a member of the BLM’s Crew 7 in Klamath Falls for the past two fire seasons, was also participating in the readiness review on Thursday.
“They are going to pick up this job really quickly,” she said of the veterans. “They already understand how things run — communications, teamwork. They already have that down.”
The squad will be a Type 2 hand crew, meaning members will have the training and expertise to be deployed to most fires. A Type 1 team like a Hotshot crew is sent to the most dangerous blazes.
The Medford District has long used firefighters from the Oregon Department of Forestry for its first line of defense against wildfires. However, BLM officials say the new team locally will augment ODF firefighters who also cover private, state and county lands.
Team 10 member Peter Osipovich, 34, a 1996 graduate of Illinois Valley High School in Cave Junction, is a Navy veteran who already has eight years of firefighting experience with Grayback Forestry.
Before joining Team 10, he fought the Little Bear fire in New Mexico earlier this month.
“Military veterans blend in well with the firefighters,” he said. “Their military background, with its chain of command and structure, will help out a lot.”
Former Army Spec. 4 Dusenberry, 25, was deployed to Iraq in 2007, spending 16 months in country where he was part of a security detachment. However, the Crater High School graduate, who was discharged in 2010, served as a wildlands firefighter with Wolf Creek Hot Shots before joining the Army.
“This is an awesome opportunity,” he said. “With other military veterans, you have someone you can relate to, someone who knows and shares the same outlook in life. It’s nice to be working with people who understand and know what you’ve been through.
“And we’ve got a great group of people,” he added. “I’m looking forward to this season.”
So is Tucker, 27, a former senior airman in the Air Force who served in Qatar. He was with Rural/Metro Fire Department in Grants Pass for the past year.
“This will be my first season with wildland fires,” he said. “But there is a correlation between firefighters and (military) veterans. There is definitely that camaraderie of working together with a tight knit group.
“You still got objectives and a command structure you have to follow to get the mission done,” added Tucker, who is closing in on an associate’s degree in fire science from Rogue Community College.
“I’m a little nervous but I’m psyched,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to learning something new.”
There may be a small hitch. Literally.
The firefighter is getting married on July 14 in the Applegate Valley.
“If they go out this weekend, I won’t be able to go — I’ll have to hang back for a bit,” he said. “I can’t really ask someone to stand in for me at the wedding.”
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.