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Capt. Casey Meadows Senior FF John Hanson Senior FF Jason West Senior FF Will DeCoteau
Capt. Casey Meadows and senior firefighters Jason West, Will DeCoteau and John Hanson spent nearly two weeks in a world far away from their normal jobs as firefighters in Minot. The experience was different for all of them.
For Meadows, the trip began on only his second day of being a captain. Hanson used his 11 years of wildfire experience to help the others understand what it takes to battle wildfires. West had one previous season of wildfire experience, but this trip was unlike anything he'd dealt with before. DeCoteau was eager to learn new things – and the trip certainly didn’t disappoint him.
One crew. One journey. Four different perspectives.
Capt. Casey Meadows made it halfway through his first day as captain before agreeing to be part of the crew headed to Oregon. He spent the second half of that day at home packing for the trip to the west coast.
“I was on my first shift as captain when I got the call asking if I wanted to be part of this trip,” he said. “Of course I said yes, so they immediately sent me home to pack. I didn’t even make it through one shift as captain.”
Not that he’s complaining. The opportunity was too good to pass up.
“I jumped at this chance,” Meadows said. “This could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I didn’t want to pass that up. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
For Meadows, the trip provided valuable experience both from a firefighting standpoint and from a leadership viewpoint.
“It was definitely a unique experience. For me as a new captain, being able to witness the incident command center of such a large operation was amazing,” he said. “I took a lot away from the command standpoint.”
Meadows was also pleased that he and the crew were able to participate in wildland firefighting tasks.
“We were excited that they asked us to assist the hand crews and allowed us to do a bunch of wildland things,” he said. “That was an awesome experience. We’re structural guys, and it’s a while different beast being out there.”
Being part of the North Dakota task force that spent time in Oregon, which consisted of firefighters and equipment from Minot, Fargo, Grand Forks, and Williston, was a unique opportunity.
“The real takeaway for me was how well all of us were able to adapt to whatever they asked us to do, including things we’d never done before,” Meadows said. “It was really cool to see everyone willing to jump in and try things they’d never done before.”
Senior Firefighter John Hanson had a pretty good idea of what he’d see in the forests; he spent 11 years as a wildland firefighter earlier in his career. Still, he was surprised by the devastation he witnessed on this trip.
“Oregon doesn’t traditionally have a lot of fires, but some days they’ve had more burn in 12 hours than they usually have in a couple of years,” he said. “It’s really overwhelming when you’re there, and you see how quickly things can happen. It’s a really dire situation out there.”
Hanson and the other North Dakota firefighters spent most of their time near Cave Junction, Ore. They weren’t sure what they’d be asked to do, making it difficult to prepare for this assignment.
“We had no idea what we’d be doing, so we had to prepare for everything,” Hanson said. “We didn’t know if we’d be covering for other departments on structural fires or if we’d be doing actual wildland stuff, which is what we ended up doing. But we were there to help however we could.”
Hanson said the firefighters from Williston, Fargo, Grand Forks, and Minot worked well together, despite not knowing each other prior to this assignment.
“Everybody jelled really well together to accomplish whatever tasks we were given,” he said. “This was kind of an unprecedented thing to have North Dakota put this task force together and go out there. We were proud to be part of it.”
Hanson said the experiences from this trip will make him a better firefighter. He’s learned a few things, and he’s realized that firefighters from a city department in North Dakota can be beneficial in the forests of Oregon.
“It was good to see that structural firefighters don’t always have to be tied to a truck,” he said. “This has allowed us to do some outside-the-box work, and realize that we are capable of doing some different things.”
Senior Firefighter Jason West spent one season as a wildland firefighter seven years ago in California. After moving to Minot and becoming part of the Minot Fire Department, he didn’t think he’d ever see wildland firefighting again.
“Honestly, I was really surprised that the opportunity presented itself,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d ever do that again. But it was a great learning experience.”
His previous wildfire training came in handy, and gave him an idea of what the North Dakota task force would be up against in the forests of Oregon.
“Living in a fire camp for two weeks is a challenge. Sleeping in tents, eating camp food every day. I’m not complaining, but it’s long days of getting up early every day, and hiking in the mountains with a lot of weight on your back,” West said. “You kind of feel like a little kid again, sleeping in a tent and eating cold sandwiches at lunch every day.”
His previous experience didn’t prepare him for everything, though. West and fellow senior firefighter John Hanson were promoted in August, so they haven’t had much time behind the wheel of Engine 1.
“We got a crash course in mountain driving vs. street driving,” West said. “There are a lot of switchbacks and tight spaces. I never thought we’d be using Engine 1 in spots like that.”
They also shared time driving to and from Oregon with Senior Firefighter Will DeCoteau. The trip took two long days of driving both ways.
“These trucks aren’t exactly designed for maximum comfort on long road trips,” West said.
West said the firefighters from Williston, Minot, Grand Forks, and Fargo that made up the North Dakota task force worked seamlessly together, despite not knowing each other before this trip.
“This reinforced something I’ve always thought about the fire industry – we’re all kind of the same personality,” he said. “We’re all willing to make sacrifices. We all have the same pride in our job, and we all have the same will and drive to help people. It was an eye-opening experience for me to see us all come together and not miss a beat, like we’d been working together for five or 10 years.”
Completing the two-week assignment made West appreciate those who battle wildfires on a daily basis. It also made him think about his regular job.
“It makes me appreciate that I’m a firefighter for a city department. I appreciate that I get to eat a meal I cooked for myself. It makes me realize how grateful I am that in our department, we each get our own bed to sleep in, even though we do wake up at all hours of the night,” he said. “It makes me appreciate my job here that much more.”
Senior Firefighter Will DeCoteau was eager to absorb new things on the west coast trip, and to expand on his skills as a member of a city department.
“There was talk we might be doing more structural work, but our mindset was to expect the unexpected and be ready to do anything,” he said. “Going hiking, digging lines, stuff like that. We really didn’t think we’d do a lot of that because our training is structural, but for them to trust us with wildland tasks was great experience for us.”
DeCoteau said he didn’t hesitate when asked to be part of this crew.
“I got the call at 2 p.m. and said yes. We had a meeting at 3 p.m. and we were gone by the next morning,” he said. “For me, it was just about making sure I wasn’t missing anything important here. After that, it was ‘Let’s make this happen.’ ”
DeCoteau, Hanson, and West shared driving duties, and put their department’s Engine 1 in some unique situations.
“The first three days, we were working up near Cave Junction and there’s a lot of switchbacks, 100-foot trees all around, and a huge drop-off next to the road,” he said. “It makes you more cognizant of your surroundings. It’s definitely not like driving in a city.”
Hanson and West had both spent time as wildland firefighters, but the experience was new to DeCoteau and Meadows.
“It definitely makes you realize that physical fitness is very important. There’s so much hiking and climbing with a lot of gear, and that’s definitely different than we’re used to,” DeCoteau said. “Sleeping in a tent for two weeks takes its toll on your back, but you get used to it.”
DeCoteau is grateful for the experience, and for the knowledge that will help him be a better firefighter.
“When you’re out there, you have to be open to every situation and adapt to changing situations, which is what we are trained to do, but on a different scale,” he said. “But this trip reinforced to me that training for everything that might come your way is very important to successfully doing your job on a daily basis.”