Why fighting wildfires in the American West is a better job than it sounds

How Renton’s Gabriel Egan Vásquez found a rewarding career in wildland firefighting.

Some jobs are tiresome, rigorous, dangerous and nerve-racking, but someone has to do it in the name of the greater-good.

That is the case with a wildland firefighter, tasked with doing the groundwork that is often the last line of defense to an all-consuming wildfire. The difference between a job well done and a failure could not only be the difference between saving dozens of square miles of wild flora and fauna, it could be the difference between saving your own life or the lives of your teammates.

This is the duty that Renton’s Gabriel Egan Vásquez was brave enough to rise up to.

The 23-year-old joined the U.S. Forest Service’s Wildland Fire division as a forestry technician at the age of 19. Born in Arizona and raised in Mexico before moving to live with his godparents in Renton, the idea of forestry was new to him.

“I had never been in the woods, or hiked up a hill like that,” Vásquez said of the unfamiliar surroundings he was placed in during his training.

Along with physical fitness training to prepare trainees for hiking dozens of miles up hills with more than 45-pounds of gear of their person, Vásquez also learned techniques like digging line, in which teams dig trenches to try and create a gap in the vegetation to apprehend the spread of the fire.

Other techniques include back burning, when permission is granted to do a controlled burn way ahead of the fire line in hopes of getting rid of potential fuel for the fire and cutting off its spread. Vásquez said they even have grenade-like fireworks as a way to carry out this technique.

Last Summer, Vásquez was deployed with a team or around 20 other people to Oregon. The team would work for about 14 days in a row, 12 to 16-hour shifts, sleeping on the ground at the campsite, showers were rare. Meals were scarce, but were a necessity to sustain energy for the long day ahead.

He said every day started out with a team briefing, where there they would discuss the plan of attack for the day. Then, they would hike miles into the wilderness before arriving at the site of their work. It could be miles away from the frontline of the fire, or it could be right next to the inferno.

“My very first fire I was terrified, I won’t lie,” Vásquez said. “Your mind is going ‘Dang, there is fire everywhere’ and the boss is yelling orders at you.”

In the chaos of it all, there are many hazards; choking smoke, melting flames, rolled ankles and brittle trees weakened by the fire, which Vásquez said can fall on someone just from the wind alone.

He remembers one of his first large fires in which the flames and embers “jumped” the line they had dug out to prevent the spread, causing flames to spread far too close for comfort. A log fell and struck one of his team members. Everyone made it out fine, but Vásquez said the team was “shaken up” by the experience.

Teamwork and communication in these situations are key, as everyone has to look out for each other to ensure they all get home safe.

“The people you work with become your family because you sweat and bleed together,” Vásquez said. “When we do go through it, we are there for each other.”

He said he remembers tough days as he and his team trekked up miles of steep hill, heavy gear in hand, blistered feet, and smoke blowing in their face from the blaze ahead. In the moments when they were exhausted from pushing themselves so hard, they would sing together to lift morale.

“At the end of the day it’s what we signed up for,” He said of the job at hand.

Right now, Vásquez wants to continue fighting wildfires, he even hopes to be a part of units that fight the fires directly on the front lines.

“It makes me feel like I am doing something with a purpose,” he said. “As for right now, I’m sticking to it.”

Although it is no cake walk, Vásquez said the job is extremely rewarding. He has made friends with his teammates who he says feels like he is leaving family behind when it is finally time to go home after the fire season. He noted the great views and scenery in wilderness that is rarely trekked by people and the night shifts in which he has watched the sun rise over the West.

Gabriel Egan Vázquez in uniform (courtesy of Gabriel Egan Vázquez)

Gabriel Egan Vázquez in uniform (courtesy of Gabriel Egan Vázquez)