Firefighter answers the call to fight Western disasters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

During the past 10 years, Mike Huneke has been deployed almost twice every summer to fight wildfires, which he has done in 13 states, and he still sees each trip as a learning experience.

"Every trip is different, you never know what you'll be getting involved with day to day. ... Each time I've gone, I've learned something new," said the Pylesville resident.

Huneke, 33, returned Monday to his wife and two kids from a two-week deployment to Washington state and Colorado, where he served as a single crew representative for the first time ever. As a single crew representative, Huneke alone supervised a 20-man crew in Washington and Colorado.

Huneke and his group, the Snake River Valley Crew from Oregon, started at the Fawn Peak Fire in Washington. The crew was transferred to Colorado when authorities thought the blaze was coming under control, but the fire has picked up again. Fawn Peak has now burned more than 74,000 acres and has cost more than $27 million to fight.

On July 18, Huneke and his crew were moved to the Balcony House Fire burning in Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado, a blaze that is now 90 percent contained. Their last stop was the Bean Canyon Fire in Dolores, Colo., which they fought from July 23 to July 27.

Huneke explained that as a crew representative, he is in charge of the "safety, welfare and productivity" of his group. The Oregon crew consisted almost entirely of Mexican-Americans, about half of whom spoke English. This meant that Huneke, who speaks some Spanish, was instrumental in forming lines of communication between his group and other fire officials.

The 20 group members were a type 2 initial attack crew, which means they did not make direct attacks on the fire, but were primarily involved with indirect methods such as burnout control and putting out hot spots.

According to Huneke, Maryland sends firefighters to help other states protect natural resources and to train Maryland firefighters large blazes, and as a form of mutual aid between states.

"The Maryland firefighters stack up against any crew in the country, I've been out there enough to see that," said Huneke.

This summer, the state has almost 200 people who are on call to assist in other fight wildfires. All have taken a training course, passed a physical test and attended a weekend long fire academy at Broadcreek Memorial Scout Reservation, where trainees fight a simulated wildfire.

The on-call firefighters are usually given about eight hours' notice before it's time to get on a plane to where they're needed. Once they arrive, they generally wake up around 4:30 in the morning, receive a briefing around 6 and work until dark. However, there are strict safety precautions that for every two hours of work, a firefighter must have one hour off.

"We are absolutely religious about following the safety rules and maintaining awareness of the situation at all times," Huneke said.

Although the firefighters always have the appropriate amount of downtime, all of those hours are not spent sleeping. The camps that they live in while battling wildfires are busy places, and can be occupied by as many as 1,200 people.

"Everywhere you go, there's a line," said Huneke, laughing.

Huneke wanted to work outdoors ever since he was a Boy Scout and has done just that for the past decade, serving as project manager for Harford and Cecil counties for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. In addition to firefighting, his duties include working with local landowners on forest management, getting trees planted and doing streamside work. He is also a member of the Whiteford Volunteer Fire Department.

Huneke expects to be called to another wildfire before the summerends.

"I look forward to it every year," he said. "We believe in protecting forest resources wherever they may be. It's the right thing to do and we are absolutely committed."

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