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Fighting fires far from home

Emily Lytle * Delaware
elytle@doverpost.com
Dover Post

When Tyler Thompson was 17 years old, he knew he wanted to learn how to fight wildfires. Growing up a couple blocks from the firehouse, he had already started volunteering in Smyrna.

“I would always hear the whistle blow whenever there was a call,” Thompson said. “There was something about it that intrigued me. I can’t tell you exactly what that was.”

When he heard that the Delaware Forest Service was offering wildfire training, he was all in.

“I probably didn’t know exactly what I was getting into,” he said. “I like to train and take any type of training because in the fire service you never know what you’re going to be up against.”

After taking a couple courses, Thompson attended the hands-on portion of wildfire training called Fire Camp. He said he learned how to fight fires with limited resources and adapt to a different lifestyle, one that may include sleeping in a tent for 14 days and fighting fires 10 to 12 hours a day.

After Fire Camp, Thompson and his peers were qualified to join a 20-person crew on an out-of-state wildfire assignment. At least once each summer, the Delaware Forest Service sends help to high-need areas like California, Colorado and Idaho.

As much as training prepared him, Thompson said he learned a lot once on assignment. “You don’t see it firsthand until your first assignment,” he said.

He received his first call at 18, the minimum age. “As a rookie, you don’t really know if you’re going to be selected or not,” he said

The crew was heading out to Los Padres National Forest in southern California the next day, and Thompson knew he’d be late to college if he agreed to go.

He said “Sure.”

“We made it happen. and I’m grateful for that opportunity,” Thompson said. While he believes he didn’t meet all expectations the first time, he continued to train and was ready when he was called to Wyoming and Colorado for his second assignment.

‘“I was better prepared. I definitely met and probably exceeded expectations,” he said. “It’s all about learning and taking care of yourself and adjusting to a different work schedule.”

Since then, Thompson estimates he has gone on eight to 10 different fire assignments, spanning the country from Alaska to the continental divide to the U.S.-Canadian border.

“We’ve slept and eaten lunch in more places than most people would see in real life on vacation,” he said.

Thompson and many other volunteers maintain their certification and achieve higher levels of training, returning year after year. Many on the crew have a connection to emergency services and a desire to serve communities, Thompson said.

“I try to stay humble about it,” he said. “Nobody on the crew really views what we do as spectacular or heroic. We’re just individuals who enjoy doing it and enjoy giving back.”

For questions about the wildfire program, contact Kyle Hoyd at 302-698-4548 or Kyle.Hoyd@delaware.gov.

Free wildfire training classes

  • When: Feb. 1 and 2, 15 and 16, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  • Where: Delaware Department of Agriculture, 2320 S. Dupont Highway, Camden
  • Details: No cost, no experience required
  • To register: Deadline Jan. 31 Online registration form
  • For more: de.gov/wildfire