Feb. 15, 2013 – Fighting on the front lines of a major forest fire — ripping up brush, tearing the earth down to mineral soil, working into the night, then collapsing exhausted into a tent for a few hours sleep only to begin all over again — was the experience that ignited Tom Speaks’ (’79 B.S. in forestry) passion for firefighting. “It was a great adventure,” he says of his 1977 student firefighting stint in Northern California, during which he went three weeks without a shower or change of clothes and had to hike 15 miles to civilization after an early snow.
Speaks and three other Virginia Tech forestry alumni are members of an elite group who have attained the highest level of the country’s wildfire fighting ranks. Type 1 Incident Commanders lead management teams assigned to the nation’s largest, most complex fires; only 20 people in the nation hold this rank at any given time. Speaks, Mike Wilkins (’76 B.S.), and Mike Quesinberry (’83 B.S.) are the only current wildland firefighters holding this qualification in the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Region, which stretches from Virginia to Florida to Texas. Joe Ferguson (’77 B.S.) retired several years ago after becoming the first Type 1 Incident Commander for one of two new, full-time National Incident Management Organization teams. He continues to train forest and park leaders and emergency managers around the country.
All four started their firefighting careers on Professor Dick Vasey’s wildfire fighting crew at Virginia Tech. After receiving training from the Forest Service, they battled local brush at a time away from their families. For example, as commander of the full-time management team, Ferguson fought fires for all but about three weeks of the summer of 2007.
With the drier climate cycle and increased development in wooded areas creating longer, more complex, and costlier fires, crews have been busier than ever. Although they are no longer on the front lines in their supervisory roles, each of the alumni has been in tight situations; they know what it’s like to outrun a fire, their hearts thudding in their throats. They are masters of strategy, of reading weather, land, and risks. “We’re very safety conscious now,” said Wilkins, a district ranger on North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest. “We take a step back, look at things, and strategize. We don’t put ourselves in front of a fire we can’t stop. There is no point in giving up your life for a natural resource. Risk your life for another life, but not for trees.”
Ferguson says he almost quit firefighting after working 30 hours straight on fire lines along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia in 1976. “We’d put a fire out, and an arsonist would start another one farther north. We didn’t sleep; we just fought fires until we were beyond tired. I got back to Tech and said I’d never do that again, but five days later, a call came in and I was on my way to Kentucky,” he said. “Fighting fires gives you an adrenalin rush, sure, and there’s a feeling of accomplishment when you get the fire out.”
“Firefighting gets into your blood,” said Quesinberry, who took over Ferguson’s former job as full-time commander of the National Incident Management Organization team in Atlanta in September 2012. “We all have our passions. Some like to hike, some like to skydive — firefighters are like the skydivers of Forest Service work. And with 50 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget going for fighting fires, this kind of experience helps folks get jobs.”
“My firefighting made contacts for me,” says Speaks, supervisor of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests heaquartered in Roanoke. “It pushed me to develop leadership skills in tense situations, skills I use as a forest supervisor.
Firefighting was one of the bigger draws when I considered a career in forestry. It’s the best morale builder I know. You’re working with a team of quality people on a mission, and you get a great feeling of achievement when the fire is out.”
The four alumni, who have been friends for decades, feel as though the Virginia Tech firefighting crew is a special fraternity. “We’re a tight group,” said Speaks. “For bonding, nothing quite compares to the fire experience and going to Virginia Tech.”