Wildfire or not — when there’s a fire, Gray Summit resident Rich Long is willing to go.
Long, who is a member of the Boles Fire Department, helps fight wildfires in the Western United States.
Long began his training as a junior firefighter while attending Pacific High School in 1994. Long’s dad is a retired firefighter and continues to volunteer. His brother also is a volunteer firefighter.
After his graduation in 1998, Long knew he wanted to continue working as a firefighter.
“It’s an adventure,” he said, adding that fighting wildfires has taken him to places that some people never get to see.
In 2002, classes were offered for structural firefighters like Long to gain certification to travel out of state to help fight wildfires.
Prior to that, he said, the fires were fought primarily by the Department of Conservation and forest service/park service officials.
Long, along with a few other Boles firefighters, attended the course. Others from the department who have completed the course include Long’s dad, Byron Long, Eric Heimos, Justin Hill and Sam Johnson.
The class is independent of the structural firefighting class. Participants learn wildfire behavior, possible weather patterns and other skills necessary to fight the fires that can burn for weeks at a time.
There also is a yearly work capacity test. Firefighters take a refresher course and walk three miles in 45 minutes carrying 45 pounds to simulate the amount of calories burned in one hour while fighting fires out West, Long said.
“When you go out West you may be hiking three, four, five miles. You may be flown in on a helicopter or taken in on an old school bus or a pickup truck. It’s a lot of work sometimes just to get to the fire area,” he said. “Then, of course, there’s all the work while you’re up there.”
Deployments are typically 14 working days. With travel, Long is away from home for about 18 days at a time. Timing of the trips varies, Long said, adding that he wasn’t called to a wildfire at all in 2012.
He has traveled to Glacier National Park in Montana, which was his first wildfire, Yellowstone National Park, several fires in Idaho and Colorado, northern California, Texas and Wyoming. On a trip that began heading for Oklahoma, a tropical storm rerouted the team to another wildfire.
Long said he usually is part of a hand crew, but he is eligible to go out on engines. A hand crew is a 20-person crew broken down into squads.
Firefighters in the hand crews are given hand tools and chainsaws — no trucks, usually no water, Long said.
“We cut fire lines, do burnout operations, structure protection, fire attack, coordinate water drops and sometimes we pump out of rivers or pools and stretch hose line,” he said. “It’s an extension of what I do here, but different.”
After a fire is extinguished, the firefighters help rehab and clean up.
Long has been to fires where his group was the first hand crew on site and nothing was set up, and has seen the opposite where there were camps with shower units, laundry services and a helicopter landing spot set up on site.
At times, the crews are working a tiny corner of a fire seemingly alone, while at other times, they are up against people’s homes.
Out-of-state firefighters are not allowed to fight structural fires, Long said, adding that it can be difficult to refrain from the fire since he is accustomed to fighting structural fires at home.
Another aspect of fighting wildfires that took awhile to get used to was leaving before the fires are out.
Because wildfires can burn for weeks, crews sometimes start fighting in the middle and leave before it’s completely extinguished.
“At home, we don’t leave until it’s done,” he said.
Missouri Iowa Interagency Coordination Center, located in Rolla, handles assembling and dispatching firefighters based on their list of availability and “red card” which lists each firefighter’s qualifications.
Long said he could have as little as three hours’ notice before leaving for a wildfire.
Whether fighting fires in Gray Summit or wildfires, the danger factor is always there, Long said.
“You just have to pay attention to your surroundings and have situational awareness. Everyone watches out for everyone else,” he said.
Long is the son of Byron Long, Gray Summit, and Laura Sloan, Villa Ridge. He and his wife, Meghan, nee Ohlrich, have two children, Joey, 6, and Elise, 3.