TCNJ Magazine: Fall 2017

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10 FALL 2017 This year has been one of the worst on record for wildfires worldwide. Andrew Erkkila knows what it takes to put them out. By Andrew Erkkila '07 Man fire P R A I R I E E S S A Y O UR MISSION was to burn out a buffer zone, my crew boss said. I was to fight fire with fire — torch unburned fuel on one side of the road to prevent a 25,000-acre fire from jumping our line and burning the houses on the other side. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew this was the only way to learn. Racing down the road's edge, I gripped a steel can whose flame thrower nozzle spat diesel mixed with gasoline, dripping little jewels of fire behind me. I watched match- stick dots expand into eight-foot flames and chew up the earth. I felt the rush of adrenaline, of being fully alive. I felt rinsed clean with sweat and reborn as I moved with purpose, sprinting ahead of the flames. Watch out, my crew boss said, you will catch the firebug. The summer of 2010 was my rookie season as a Gila hotshot — an elite fire crew for the U.S. Forest Service stationed in southern New Mexico's Gila Wilderness. Hotshots are the boots on the ground, the infantry of the wildland fire community. Deployed across the nation during fire season, 20-person hotshot crews are sent to the hottest parts of a fire to chop, dig, burn, and clear-cut ground fuel to stop it in its tracks. Held to rigorous physical standards, we hike long, rugged distances into wilderness and perform jobs that bulldozers and fire engines cannot. My rookie year I learned the basics: how to pack my gear, how to dig a line, what my limits were. On a typical day, we put in a 16-hour shift of mostly digging line. on RYAN FLEMKE Into the fire A hotshot crew works to put out flames in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.

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