Have hose, will travel

  • Courtesy photo

  • Casey Burrage of Rindge was recently a part of a 20 person crew from New England that went to California to help clean up after the Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire on record in California.  Courtesy photo

  • Courtesy photo

  • Courtesy photo

  • San Diego,CA.,October 26, 2007--Northern California fire crews set fire backburn to stop the Poomacha fire from advancing westward. Currently the fires in Southern California have burned more than 355,000 acres..FEMA photo/Andrea BooherSan Diego,CA.,October 26, 2007--Northern California fire crews set fire backburn to stop the Poomacha fire from advancing westward. Currently the fires in Southern California have burned more than 355,000 acres..FEMA photo/Andrea Booher Courtesy photo—

  • Courtesy photo—

  • Casey Burrage (Nicholas Handy / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Nicholas Handy—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, January 10, 2018 6:40PM

Casey Burrage got the message around 2:30 p.m. on the Wednesday before Christmas.

Pack your bags immediately, you are to be on a plane tomorrow for a two-week, all expenses paid trip to California. 

In many ways, Burrage viewed his call to duty as a vacation. It would certainly be a challenge to be away from his wife and 9-year-old son for Christmas – a first for 39-year-old Rindge resident – but Burrage has long loved fighting fires, especially when he is helping to quell the flames and destruction of some of the nation’s largest wildfires. 

“The work can be very taxing but it’s an opportunity to go to many places you might not be able to go to otherwise,” said Burrage, who returned Friday from helping fight the Thomas fire in California. “This trip was like a refreshing vacation. But it was tough to be away from my family.”

Burrage, the fire inspector for the town of Rindge, has been signing up to assist in fighting wildfires for more than ten years now, typically making a trek somewhere every other year. Burrage has been to northern, central, and southern California, Alaska, Tennessee, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. 

“It’s a challenge to go out, because I have to use my vacation time,” said Burrage, who said each trip is typically 14 days excluding travel. “But it’s a lot of fun; it’s essentially a paid government vacation. Everything is taken care of and I get to visit a part of the country that I’ve never been to. And I love the work.”

Burrage fights wildfires with a group sponsored by the New Hampshire Division Forest and Lands. While the group normally consists of 20 New Hampshire firefighters, this most recent trip also had people from New York, Vermont and the White and Green Mountains. 

Burrage said that when he signs up to be a part of a crew, he has a rough idea when he might leave, but the exact day usually isn’t determined until a day or two before departing. 

“It does get a little rough, you are supposed to be prepared,” said Burrage. “I’m sure my employer doesn’t like it.”

On this particular trip, Burrage and the rest of the crew were called to the Thomas Fire – the largest wildfire in California’s history – to serve as a hand crew tasked with doing suppression repair, which includes spreading brush, fixing barriers, and other manual labor to rehabilitate areas burned by the fire.

“We are firefighters – we want to see flames – so it was a little disappointing,” said Burrage, who said that in his past experience, he had been called in to construct fire lines and do other fire suppression work. “We were called in after most of the firefighting was over.”

Every one of Burrage’s fourteen days in California were devoted to suppression repair, with Burrage and the crew waking up every morning by 6 a.m. After eating breakfast and being briefed on the days assignment, the crew would walk into the woods and work until about 4:30 p.m., with the occasional break for food or a nap. 

“It’s all manual labor… you have to get your naps in when you can,” said Burrage, who said emergency firefighters are only required one day off for every 21 days worked, according to federal law. “It wasn’t as labor intensive as previous trips because we weren’t putting in fire lines so there wasn’t as much urgency.”

Being across the country without family for two weeks can certainly be tough, but Burrage said he has made a lot of great firefighting friends in his travels over the years. In many cases, Burrage said these are people that he only talks to while fighting wildfires. 

“I’ve become good friends with many of these people… usually about 50-percent of the crew is the same,” said Burrage. “But a lot of these friendships are fire specific. I developed a new friendship on this trip. I probably won’t see her again until the  next fire.”

Burrage's wife Arwen Mellor said that not seeing her husband during the holiday season in some ways was easier than not having him around during the summer, as she was distracted by visiting with family. 

"He's been doing this almost the entire time that we've been together, so it's a little easier now," said Mellor. "It's easy to be supportive because he loves doing it so much."

Mellor said she was freaked out at first when Burrage began fighting wildfires, but then watched a PBS program about them and learned that his risk of death and injury is less than his normal firefighting duties.

"They need him at times more than I do," said Mellor. "It makes it a little easier for me to wrap my head around. It's a sacrifice, but one I'm willing to make."

With the Monadnock region being ravaged by freezing temperatures and snow during his trip out west, Burrage said part of him didn’t want to come home. 

“I was walking around in a t-shirt on the beach the day before I left, it was 80-degrees,” said Burrage. “The biggest reward of this trip was being able to get away from the cold.”

Despite the warm weather calling for him to stay on the beach, Burrage missing his family pulled him back to  Rindge. 

“It was a great opportunity and I’m glad I went,” said Burrage. “I’m definitely going to go again, I just don’t know if I can do another one on Christmas.”