Carrying the Torch

By Jeannette Boner
Photo by Kari Greer

Brendon Soper was in a small cafe in Arizona when his phone started ringing … then kept ringing. 

First it was his father. Then it was his mother, friends, and then more family. 

“Did you hear?” a fellow hotshot firefighter asked, as they slid into a booth at the restaurant.

Soper was a young hotshot on the Flagstaff crew working a wildland fire in the heart of the Southwest. It was a rare break in a thirty-two-hour shift, and Soper planned to sleep in the back of his truck after dinner. Living out of his pickup for weeks at a time was common for Soper. He, his squad boss, saw boss, and hotshot partner had spent the better part of the previous shift on a quarter-acre spot fire, a few hours from the 2,000-acre fire in the dry mountains and canyons nearby. 

“I had the worst feeling come over me,” he recalls. “So, we got our table and sat down, and all of sudden I started getting calls.”

Assistant fire engine operator Brendon Soper. Photo by Jarrod Zweigart

News was breaking nationally—a hotshot crew working across the canyon from Soper’s crew had perished fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire. That’s all the information his family had to go on as they called, relieved he was answering his phone.

“And that’s when it hit,” Soper says. “That’s when it got real.”

The Yarnell Hill Fire killed nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighting crew on June 30, 2013, and remains one of the deadliest incidents in wildland firefighting history. Soper was a member of a hotshot team, a highly trained interagency crew used primarily to dig fire lines to keep the blaze from spreading. 

“It really changed my outlook on fire, and the relationship with the people I work for,” Soper says. 

Soper, like many wildland firefighters working on the front lines for the United States Forest Service, which is under the auspices of the United States Department of Agriculture, pursued the thrill and unique work that firefighting provides. When Soper was growing up, his father, Kim Soper, would regale him with stories of forest fires, lives saved, and acreage burned, while he peeled off his smoke-laden uniform. Kim worked the infamous Yellowstone fires of 1988 before retiring. These stories seared into Soper’s memory. It wasn’t surprising when he started working fire seasons fifteen years ago at the age of eighteen.

A heavy air tanker drops retardant on the 2016 Pioneer Fire northeast of Boise where local crews were stationed.  Photo by Kari Greer.

The rookie was no longer a child as he stood in the ring where the Granite Mountain Hotshots had stood only hours before. He pounded out the remaining embers of the of Yarnell Hill Fire, carrying the tools and the spirit of so many before him.

“You’re there and it’s just too real for a while,” Soper says of that tragic event in 2013. “We were sitting there looking at where the Granite Hotshot crew had been. I hadn’t had a full-time job with the Forest Service yet, and I was thinking it might be a good time to get out. It was then that I started self-reflecting on why I do the job I do.”

The United States is broken into nine regions for fighting fire. Teton Valley crews are a part of Region Four, which covers a large part of Idaho, Utah, most of Nevada, and some of Wyoming. The region is further divided into forests—Teton Valley is surrounded by the Caribou-Targhee National Forest—then zones, and finally ranger districts. Teton County is a part of the South Fork Zone in the Teton Basin Ranger District. The South Fork Zone employs some two-dozen men and women who work in fire and are referred to as forestry technicians rather than firefighters. They include a helitack crew, two engine crews, and a fuels crew. The forest also employs a twenty-person Type 2 Initial Attack crew based in Island Park. During the hot summer months, crews are either tied to the local forest, in case a fire sparks, or are available nationally, to respond to whatever forest calls for extra resources. But putting out a fire entails much more than a person at the end of the hose, digging a fire line, or dumping fire retardant. Each region also heavily relies on dispatch and administrative positions behind the scenes to coordinate resources, study weather patterns, and ensure everything that needs to happen does. 

Brothers Mike and Spencer Johnston on a fire assignment in Utah. Photo by Kari Greer

Teton Basin District Ranger Jay Pence pulls out the “fire folder” from his desk on a cool winter morning. Fire season for us lay-folk feels a thousand years away, but for many in the U.S. Forest Service, the season has already ignited, as fires started burning in the Southwest before the vernal equinox. 

“More than 50 percent of our budget is for fire,” says Pence, a thirty-two-year Forest Service veteran. “Fires are getting bigger and more complex.”

Last year was a record-breaking year for wildland fires in the United States. Close to ten million acres burned in the fifty states. This is 49 percent higher than the average acreage burned over the last ten years, according to Wildfire Today. However, the total number of fires has been decreasing, suggesting that fewer fires burn bigger and longer.

“We have public groups that frown on fire. When we have these groups oppose us, it makes it difficult to take risks,” says Spencer Johnston, Zone Fire Management Officer stationed in Ammon. “It’s an uphill battle. The extent of fire or the footprint of fire was never as big as it is today. It is directly contributed to climate change, and directly contributed to the natural fuel build up. If we don’t manage those fuels, they will burn. Fires are much larger; fires seasons are much longer.”

Extreme fire behavior at the Pioneer Fire.  Photo by Kari Greer.

Depending on who you talk to, and on who will go “on” or “off” the record, fires have changed since 1886 when the first U.S. Cavalry stationed at Yellowstone National Park received pay to fight wildland fires.

“When my dad started fighting fires, you could actually put out fires with shovels,” Pence says. “Now you have bigger fuels and need bigger airplanes to put out the fires, so it costs more.”

Forest fires have garnered national attention through 24-hour news media cycles that can produce negative public perceptions, Pence says. Yet the U.S. Forest Service maintains the policies set forth in the 1919 “Policy of Forestry for the Nation,” which includes safeguarding lives, protecting young forest growth, and promoting natural vegetative reproduction. 

“I think that Teton Basin Ranger District has been lucky,” Pence says. “We have had some fires due to the weather patterns, but they have not gotten too large. After the Hill Creek prescribed fire [in 2010], we had three fires start inside that area, but they were not as big as they could have been because we had already burned it. The prescribed burn worked and that is good. The Tie Fire, now that could have gotten a lot worse. That’s why we brought on the team we did because of the risk.”

Swan Valley Helitack Superintendent Kyle Stump. Photo by Cody Downard.

Changes in the environment, society, and perception not only affect fire seasons year in and year out, but also the culture of the work, the way future employees think about their careers, and the way veterans consider engaging future generations of firefighters.

More than five-hundred wildland firefighters descended upon the City of Victor in 2016 when the Tie Fire broke out along the Snake River Range southwest of Teton Valley, reminding residents and visitors alike of the reality of forest fires.

As a Type 1 incident team member and career Forest Service firefighter, Spencer Johnston grew up hearing stories of his grandfather fighting fires and his father working as a smoke jumper. His older brother Mike and a handful of cousins started their Forest Service careers fighting fires and managing resources through prescribed burns. 

“What sealed the deal for me was a fire in Pocatello in 1995,” Spencer says. “That was my first year and it was a unique experience. That was a big ol’ fire, and I learned that Mother Nature is rough. And I like carrying the torch of family tradition. For my grandpap and my father, they eventually pursued other work. But this is my career, and I’ll retire doing it.”

Swan Valley Helitack senior firefighter Kenny Heidenreich performs a helicopter training. Photo by Cody Downard.

Spencer, like many wildland firefighters, works on a rotation and knows that he could be called out to anywhere in the country to fight a fire. 

“It never ends,” he says. “You get done with a season and then you are right back into it and tooling back up. Now is the busiest time getting ready for the season,” he says of late winter and early spring. “Then June comes, and you almost get to take a breath.”

His brother, Mike Johnston, is a forest assistant fire management officer based in Jackson and living in Driggs with his wife Heather and two daughters.

“It did get in my blood,” says Mike. “I had no intention of making a career out of it. All I wanted to do was use it to get through college. I liked firefighting rather than doing math and found that there was a career here, so I ended up going for it.”

Swan Valley Helitack crew members Kyle Stump, Kenny Heidenreich, Dan Hays, and Nick Miller. Photo by Cody Downard.

The Johnston brothers raise families while getting called out on fires for two weeks at a time, sometimes longer. Being away from home is something that neither considered heading into their chosen careers. 

“Every fire assignment I take, there is some anxiety,” Mike says of his twenty-six seasons, including a trip to Puerto Rico for hurricane recovery last fall. “Nowadays, it’s about leaving the family, and that’s the toughest part of the job. I hate leaving, especially when the kids were younger because they can change overnight.”

His brother agrees, adding that cracking a cold beverage, specifically one that is spiked, is something to look forward to after weeks on a fire line. 

“I’m very proud of my brother and think it’s way cool that we both are doing well in our careers,” Mike says. “We don’t necessarily try to end up in the same places, but right now we’re both on the same Type 1 incident team, and we have seen some challenging situations. They call Type 1 incident teams when things are not going well, and it’s comforting for me because I know there is complete trust with my brother. That’s something I don’t want to take for granted. But when it comes to Thanksgiving or hunting, we don’t talk a whole lot about work,” he says, laughing.

Nearby wildfires bring smoky, red skies to Teton Valley. Photo by Cody Downard.

Pence sent his oldest son to college with the hopes of seeing him fulfill his desire to study medicine. But Thomas Pence spent a summer fighting forest fires, and now his father watches as his son embarks on a new passion that feels familiar. 

“He made $7,000 in one summer,” Pence says of Thomas working as a sawyer in Wyoming. “Now he’s on a hotshot crew fighting fires all over the country. I think he will end up working for the Forest Service. I want him to be happy, but it seems like it would be safer if he was a doctor,” he adds, laughing. 

“Fires are exciting. There is a lot going on—the atmosphere and the comaraderie—you feel like you are a part of something,” Pence says. “You are proud of what you are doing. It is rewarding. If you are a college kid and working at the golf course, that’s your job, but if you save someone’s house from a fire, there is a lot more sense of accomplishment.”

Mike Johnston often thinks about what his two daughters will do with their careers, too. “I want to provide experiences for them and help them have a deep appreciation for the outdoors. If that results in fire, or land management, I would find ways to help them do what they want to do.” 

Helitack squad leader Nick Miller. Photo by Cody Downard.

“But,” he wonders aloud, “I don’t know if I would do it all over again. Without the kids and Heather, my answer would be different. I think about all that time I’ve spent away from home. I think I may have become an engineer if I could do it all over again.”

Heather Johnston has been navigating the nuances of being married to a wildland firefighter for fifteen years, ten of them with young girls. 

“Sometimes when he calls or texts and asks how everything is, I just tell him, ‘All is well,’ because he has so much responsibility on a fire. He doesn’t need to hear about the kids fighting, me stressed to the max, or any of the daily house chaos that happens on a regular basis,” she says. “I want him to concentrate on coming home safe and keeping his crews safe. That is our job description in the summer: He stays safe and level headed, and I keep the kids and myself safe and somewhat level headed.”

For her family, it is a reality they are proud to call their life. 

Engine captain Noel “Chip” Gerdin mopping up a fire in Jackson Hole last summer. Photo by Cody Doward.

“We have had our ups and downs, but I am fiercely proud of what he does,” she says. “Together we have created two incredible kids. Eventually things will calm down, but for now we just keep trucking along. Behind every firefighter is a strong woman or man—because I know some pretty incredible women firefighters.” 

Soper is working these details out now, as he transitions from a seasonal job on a hotshot crew in Arizona,  spending winters in Teton Valley, to the assistant fire engine operator on the Driggs engine crew. His new job allows him to be a full-time Driggs resident and keeps him on fire assignments close to home.

“As you get older you want to be home a little more and solidify relationships,” Soper says. 

“But if you’re going to do it, do it all the way,” he says about pursuing the work. “It’s a rewarding career, and you’ll never find a [stronger community] outside of the wildland firefighter community. These friendships have gotten me through the worst and best times of my life. You’ll never find that anywhere else. It’s so amazing that you can have that kind of community.”