The Colgate Scene
November 2001

Standing in nature's way
Cavan Fitzsimmons helped save his Wyoming neighborhood. It is his job.

Cavan Fitzsimmons '98 knew it was only a matter of time before a wildfire threatened his family's home in Wilson, Wyoming, where he has lived since graduating from Colgate.

In his two years with the U.S. Forest Service, he had fought dozens of fires, large and small. He had seen how dangerous, how unpredictable and, all too often, how uncontrollable they can be.

"There's no way to tell when or where a fire will start," says the 25-year-old Louisiana native. "And once it starts there's no telling where it will go. So all you can do is try to be prepared."

Fitzsimmons began preparing several years ago. He installed a rooftop sprinkler system and removed several dead trees near the house. He warned his family that their dream house near the Bridger-Teton Forest, with its vistas of the Snake River, the Grand Tetons and nearby Jackson Hole, probably wouldn't survive a fire like those he had fought in recent summers.

But what Fitzsimmons never expected was to be pressed into service fighting the very blaze that he dreaded -- the one that moved this summer to within 50 feet of his and his neighbors' homes while scorching nearly 5,000 acres of Wyoming forest.

A volunteer with the Wilson Fire Department and the Forest Service's fire fighting teams, Fitzsimmons was in a unique position to help federal, county and private fire fighters battle the Green Knoll blaze that broke out near Jackson Hole on July 22.

Trouble is, he was several days away when the fire started. As a wilderness ranger for the Forest Service, Fitzsimmons works in remote areas accessible only on horseback. He spends anywhere from eight to 30 days at a time in the Teton Wilderness -- cutting trails, packing horses and mules, breaking wild mustangs and assisting outfitters. In his spare time, he also fights fires.

"It's the most isolated wilderness in the Lower 48," Fitzsimmons says. "I'm 35 miles from the nearest road, and it's not much of a road.

"When the fire broke out, I was in a place called Thoroughfare. It's even more isolated than my usual outpost -- a three-day ride on horseback. They'd been trying to reach me on the radio, and they finally got me on the day after the fire broke out. They said my house was threatened by the wildfire.

"I packed up everything I had and started riding with my crew. We rode about 18 hours straight, took a five-hour break and then rode another four hours to get out. It was the evening of July 24. By the next morning, they had me on an engine fighting the fire."

To help visiting firefighters stay fresh as they rotated shifts, Fitzsimmons turned his house over to them, to be used as a base camp. It was a situation bound to foster mixed emotions. Because Fitzsimmons knew the area so well, he was a great asset. But, for those same reasons, he had to be extra careful not to let his sentiments affect his judgment.

"On one level, your training takes over," he says. "Ultimately, my house was not as important as everybody else's house. I was assigned an area and I had to protect it."

Fitzsimmons supervised a four-person crew. Their assignment was to save his home and those of three neighbors.

"My family was depending on me to protect things, but so were all my neighbors. The thought of having to face them if any of them had lost their houses was something I did not want to experience -- especially if my own house was spared. So, I had to detach myself completely from those emotions and let my training take over."

Fitzsimmons credits his neighbors and the firefighting teams called in from several states for saving the 125 homes threatened by the blaze. Not one structure burned and no lives were lost.

But there were times when that outcome seemed in doubt. The worst day was Saturday, July 28. The fire had worked its way over the ridge behind Fitzsimmons' neighborhood, and he knew that this would be the time that he and his crew had to make a stand.

"It was right there, staring us in the face. At first, there was an eerie calm, waiting for the fire to come closer to us. We set up sprinklers, put on our poker faces and waited for the fire to come closer to us. Then, in the early afternoon, in a 15-minute rush, it made its run right at us. Each crew had several structures to protect. We put out fires right next to houses, not knowing how the other crews were doing. But when it was all over, we learned that no houses had burned."

By August 2 Fitzsimmons and his neighbors were finally allowed back into their homes after a weeklong evacuation. It was a day of celebration. The grateful citizens of Wilson threw a barbecue for firefighters that evening. Actor Harrison Ford, who lives nearby, was there and so were Fitzsimmons' neighbors.

That afternoon, Fitzsimmons lounged with friends on his rear deck, where just days earlier he and his crew had fought back the fire. He sipped a beer and watched as smoke rose from the facing hillside and "torchers" (Small, isolated fires) continued to flare up and then die out.

"This fire will smolder until next spring," he says. "It'll lie beneath the snow in the wintertime, hiding in little air pockets and inside a few logs. Then, next spring, part of it will flare up again -- but not like we just saw.

"Fires are like people. They sleep at night, they wake up in the day, they move around, and then they die."

Fitzsimmons adds that fires are nature's way in the west. "The forests have been way overmanaged in the last 50 years. For years, the Forest Service did such a good job of putting out fires that nature wasn't allowed to take its course.

"The natural order of things is for fires to burn. They clear out underbrush, knock down old trees and allow new growth -- and wildlife -- to be reintroduced to areas that had become overgrown. We're getting big, intense fires now because for years we didn't allow any to occur. Now nature's catching up."

Reprinted with the permission of the Gambit Weekly, New Orleans
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