Thrill-seekers become firefighters with Davis Fire Crew

This summer, instead of diving straight into a daunting internship and job market, a group of UC Davis students are trying their hands at a different skill-fighting forest fires. For the past few months, UC Davis students have been training to become forest firefighters through an organization called Davis Fire Crew.

Davis Fire Crew (DFC) is a seasonal firefighting crew based in Davis, California. The organization is an Organized Crew -an on-call crew funded through the Mendocino National Forest and the United States National Forest Service. Each season, DFC fights wildfires across the western United States from mid-June until early November. Since its establishment in 1976, DFC crews have fought fires as close as Lake Tahoe and as far away as Montana and New Mexico.

Each spring, DFC hires over 100 men and women ages 18 and over from around the Davis area for their summer season.

David Kwan, a senior communication major who will be graduating this June, said the idea of spending the summer outside and using practical skills for the greater good convinced him to join DFC.

“I loved the idea of combining the outdoors with using practical, hands-on skills to fight fires. I also thought it would be a great way to find out what being a forest firefighter is all about,” Kwan said.

This is Kwan’s first time with DFC and although he has some opportunities lined up for this fall, he is looking forward to this summer as it is a unique opportunity to make some money while doing something really fun.

“The trips can last from one day to three weeks and you go to really cool places. They also pay you for the transportation. It is a good source of income and definitely a great summer job for a college student,” Kwan said.

This summer will be Alexis Fuller’s third summer with DFC. The junior plant biology major said the best part about being with DFC is getting close to the people on her crew.

“It’s a mix of very different people, from all over, not just from UC Davis. And all with different kinds of backgrounds,” Fuller said.

The organization holds informational meetings on the Davis campus in early spring to recruit students. After recruitment, training begins and lasts from March until May. During training, candidates must pass a series of physical tests including the “pack test”-a rigorous fitness test in which recruits must carry a 45-pound backpack for three miles in less than 45 minutes-to continue with the training.

Those who pass the test then begin the training process which according to DFC’s official website involves fire suppression techniques, fire safety and behavior, and proper tool usage. The training is a combination of classroom work and field experience.

“[During training] we got to go outside and learn how to use a lot of the fire equipment like fire shelters and hand tools. Sometimes you are out there from 8 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m., which is really cool,” Kwan said.

The basis of training is to learn how to suppress a fire without using water. DFC trains its crew to use shovels and axes to dig big lines in the ground.

“The whole idea behind a line is to build a trench and thus prevent the fire from crossing that trench,” Kwan said.

One of Fuller’s most memorable experiences in DFC was on her first dispatch where her crew’s assignment was to completely put out a half-acre fire and to make sure it did not come back. Often, a fire can start even after it has been put out; her boss made sure that fire didn’t.

“Once we put out every hot spot we saw, our crew boss made us line up across the fire, get down on our hands and knees and run our hands through every inch of dirt across the whole fire. It was awful, hard work but we had so much fun since we all looked so silly doing it,” Fuller said.

Although it may be hard work, Kwan says being a part of DFC is a unique experience that will make for a great summer job.

“It’s a great opportunity to make some money while doing something I really enjoy and forming lasting friendships. It’s a changing experience and probably something I will never get the chance to do again,” Kwan said.

Davis Fire Crew’s website sums up the summer experience of being a DFC forest firefighter: “We experience some of the most beautiful country imaginable all while earning a very respectable hourly wage for the demanding and dangerous work performed in the interests of protecting people, property and natural resources.”

Although hiring for the 2011 summer staff is over, more information about DFC including how and when to apply for Summer 2012 can be found on their website davisfirecrew.org.

CLAIRE MALDARELLI can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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