Cottey Alumna Fights Wildfires Out West

Meagan Duffee-Yates ’07, a private land conservationist for Barton and Jasper counties with the Missouri Department of Conservation, answered the call when the wildfires began in California and Oregon. Her answer was, “Yes!”

“I got the call to go out to Oregon in mid-July,” said Duffee-Yates. “At the beginning of fire season, which is late May-November, we provide to our employer dates that we are available to be gone for up to 21 days. Since this is through my employer [Department of Conservation] they are very understanding and very supportive.”

What made her say yes to the opportunity to go fight wildfires?

“I knew that I would be gaining experience by going to a different state and being involved with large scale wildfires,” Duffee-Yates explained. “With my job we are asked to help fight local wildfire but our environment is much different than out west. Being able to go fight fires in a different environment, with different weather patterns, different habitat and through a much larger Incident Command System is what made me say yes. Plus, I had the opportunity to see new states and be out west.”

What was a typical day like fighting wildfires?

“Our days always start at 5:30 a.m. We are up, dressed and have our camp broken down by 6 a.m. We eat as a crew (which is 20 of us) together. After breakfast we break off into four squads, which are made up of five people each. We gather all necessary supplies that we will need for the day, including our packed lunches (which are gross) and all water bottles that we may need. Each day is different,” she added. “We could be cutting in line all day, which is basically taking our tools and making a bare dirt path that is three feet wide and at least a foot and a half deep. We can typically cut in about five miles of line in a day. Or we could be brushing out a road, which is basically cutting all brush, trees and shrubs about 100 feet in, tossing all cut brush to the other side of the road to reduce fire loads. Or we could be holding a line while they do a burn out or as the wildfire itself is approaching our line. We worked 16-hour days, had just enough time to catch a little sleep (maybe, we are in a camp with over 500 people sometimes) before waking up and doing it all over again.”

 Were she ever frightened or worried for her safety?

“Every day,” Duffee-Yates said. “You always have to be on alert; trees can fall on you; the fire could jump the line and make a run up the hill to you, or you could be directly fighting the fire. Situational awareness is always the most important thing. I combat this fear by having trust in my fellow crew members and always making sure to keep an eye on everything that is around me. I have to remind myself that there are people on my crew that have been doing this for over 20 years and they have valuable experience that I must trust.”

Would Duffee-Yates say yes to this opportunity again if called?

“Of course I would! This is my second trip out west to fight wildfires. Last year I was called to Libby, Montana, and loved it! This year was Oregon. I plan on doing this for the rest of my career for as long as I am allowed to do so!”

 What has she learned from this experience?

“Teamwork is the most important thing” said Duffee-Yates. “You must have trust in your teammates and in your crew! Hard work is the name of the game, but if you embrace the knowledge that you will be doing a ton of hard work then you can learn to enjoy the experience and gain valuable knowledge!”

Meagan Duffee-Yates described the equipment, clothing, and safety gear she carried each day to fight wildfires.

Equipment:
Line Pack: We carry all necessary gear in this pack, which is on us at all times. Inside of this pack is our lunches, water for the day, fuses (which are used to light a line), sharpeners for our hand tools, and our most important item for any wildland firefighter, our fire shelter. This item is what we use if we get compromised on the fire line. This single item can be the difference between life and death.

Clothing: 
All of our clothing on the fire line is made out of Nomex, which is a fire resistant material. It is NOT fire proof, but highly fire resistant. It is designed so that if it did catch on fire it would burn off and not melt to our skin, though it does have properties that help protect us from high heat. We have a yellow Nomex shirt, Nomex fire pants, a helmet, leather gloves, 8” high cuff boots, and safety glasses, all of which are required while on the fire line. Some people have extra stuff, like I have a face mask that is designed to withstand high heat and has a particulate filter in it to help reduce the inhalation of fine particles into my lungs. I also carry a Nomex jacket called “Dragon Fur” that is used if the temps get cold while we are on the line.

We also have a red bag, which is large bag that is used to carry all of our clothing and camping gear that is needed. We are allowed to carry a max of 60 pounds when traveling, so everything that we need (including our tents, sleeping bags and pillows) must weight 60 pounds or less. I use a lightweight back country tent that weighs 3 pounds; my sleeping bag is also lightweight as are my pillow and sleeping pad. I also carry necessary sleeping clothing and a undershirt to change into each day. Our socks are an every other day clothing item, which seems gross, but when you are on the fire line weight is an issue.

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