Fighting the heat

Aug 292011
Authors: Collette Dewit

Warner College of Natural Resources students Stephen Cox, Morgan Derr and Ben Spatola, along with one student from West Virginia, had a busy summer serving as wild-land firefighters for this year’s unusually active fire season.

Serving through internships offered by the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS), Cox, Derr and Spatola helped with 10 fires across several Colorado counties and one in Georgia.

“We are always looking for opportunities to involve students to get experience,” said Matt Branch, an employee at CSFS who helped get the program going and works closely with interns.

This is the third year internships have been offered at CSFS. Fifty students usually apply each year and four students are chosen. They make $11 an hour throughout their internship.

“A lot of folks going through fire management are coming out without a lot of experience,” Branch explained. “The problem with that is you’re going to school for four years and coming out and don’t really have the prerequisite training to get a job.”

This problem is what started the development of the internship program. Initially CSU offered a mini grant, which allowed the program to get up-and-running.

“We look for students that are in some sort of natural sciences discipline,” Branch said. “We want them to be interested in wild land fire.”

This summer’s interns worked hands-on with helping to put out and clean up fires while also receiving crucial training with machinery like fire pumps.

“Our daily routine, when not on a fire, was to work out for an hour, and then either work around the shop or do project work, which involves basically carrying out management plans on state forest property,” Derr said. “So we did a lot of chainsaw work and removal of beetle killed trees.”

“When we were on a fire, the routine changed day-to -day, depending on what was needed,” Derr added.

Daniel Bevrigde, a CSFS employee who worked with the interns, thought the program focused on getting interns familiarity with fighting fires more than just training.

“This year there was not as much training, but you can always catch up on training,” Bevrigde said. “The whole concept is to get folks fire fighting experience. So from that aspect it was entirely successful.”

Spatola, a junior forest biology major at CSU, said his most memorable internship experience came during a late night in Lyons.

“The most fun I had on the fire was on the Coffintop fire outside of Lyons,” Spatola said. “We hiked in at night with the objective to look for any spot fires apart from the main fire and then to help improve the fire line around the main fire.

“That was the only fire in which we worked at night on and it was interesting trying to hike up a steep hillside in the dark while being alert for any spot fires.”

By gaining hands-on experience, Derr said she learned things about fire that can’t be taught in a classroom.

“It’s kind of an impossible feeling to describe,” Derr said of being around the smoke and flames of a fire. “At first I was pretty nervous about it, but then you start learning what it’s like and start paying attention to other things.”

Collegian writer Collette DeWitt can be reached at

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