Worcester State University biology major Jesse Caney on the scene of a wildland fire

Biology Major Helps Fight Wildland Fires in the West

August 15, 2016
By: Kim Caisse

Biology major Jesse Caney might have the riskiest summer job of the Worcester State student body. He’s been on elite hotshot crews battling wildland fires in California, Utah, and Nevada—essential training for a career in fire ecology.

Caney spent July fighting the Fuller Fire on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which has burned over 14,500 acres so far, and the Sand Fire in the Santa Clarita Valley Mountains, which burned over 41,400 acres before it was declared contained on August 4. He is battling fires in Nevada this month, including the Strawberry Fire in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, which was started by a lightning strike on August 8.

After Caney’s service at the Fuller and Sand fires ended, he returned to his Lassen Volcanic National Park duty station. “I was doing some prep work for a Rx fire (planned burning in a national park) and responding to medical calls in the park. I also did community outreach showing the fire trucks to kids,” he says.

Being a Hotshot

“Being on a hotshot crew, we don’t use water to put the fire out,” Caney says.

Some members of the hotshot crews use hoes, pulaskis, and other hand tools to remove grasses, small shrubs, and other vegetation, while others, like Caney, wield saws to remove trees. Firefighters call the process “digging a hand line.”

“I usually run a chainsaw and remove fuel in front of the fire, or we fight fire with fire and burn the fuel away before it can reach a house or a community,” he says.

Hotshot crews “can anticipate when a fire will happen a good portion of the time,” Caney explains. “Dry and windy conditions typically set high alerts or what we call red-flag warnings that tell us to be alert. Other areas can call for resources ahead of time and have us pre-positioned if they expect lighting to come through.”

Whether they’re on engine, hand, helitack, rappel, smokejumper, or hotshot crews, the wildland firefighters typically work 16-hour shifts for 14 consecutive days. That can extend to 21 or 30 days, depending on resource levels.

The dangers of serving on a hotshot crew go without saying, but it’s never easy to lose a colleague “on the line.” That was why Caney reported from the field that Saturday, August 13 “wasn’t a good day.” Another firefighter, who was serving on a different hotshot crew fighting the Strawberry Fire, died that afternoon after being struck by a falling tree. (The Wildfire Firefighter Foundation is collecting donations to support the firefighter’s family.)

There is growing concern over the severity of the wildfires, the wildfire season becoming year-round, and the impact both are having on the U.S. Forest Service’s budget. Observers point to climate change as the main cause, with the West becoming drier and hotter. Much of California is in a prolonged “exceptional drought,” while Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are dealing with “abnormally dry” to “moderate drought” conditions.

Essential Career Training

But fire still is seen as a way to encourage and manage ecosystems. “Most areas depend on these events for healthy ecosystems, so we watch the fire behavior and suppress some areas and put fire on the ground in other areas,” Caney says.

This is the second time that Caney has spent his summer fighting wildland fires. Previously, he worked in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. “In the South, it was more controlled burning for fire-dependent ecosystems, but there was still suppression,” he says.

“The people I work with are some of the hardest and most intelligent individuals I have ever had the pleasure of being with,” Caney adds. “A good portion are individuals who do this during the summer. Everyone I work with has a passion to fight fire.”

Caney believes this is essential training for a career as a fire ecologist. “Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated with the natural world around us—everything from forestry to wildlife biology,” he says. After graduating from WSU in December 2017, he plans to pursue a graduate degree in wildlife conservation. As a fire ecologist, he wants to specialize in wildlife in “fire-climax communities.”

“Fighting wildland fires appeals to me on a few levels: I can combine biology, adventure, and helping others into a summer job that will help lay a strong foundation for my future career,” he says.

When he’s not on the WSU campus, Caney spends some of his time serving as a firefighter and emergency medical technician. “I’ve always wanted to help others in some way that still presented me with a think-on-your-feet challenge,” he explains.

He plans to serve in these first-responder roles “for the rest of my life,” he adds. “I absolutely love structural firefighting and EMS.”

You also can find him at Central Rock Gym in Worcester helping customers satisfy their craving for a rock-climbing adventure.

Although the combined earnings of Caney’s three part-time jobs cover living expenses, they fall short of helping with his college costs as he heads into his last three semesters. That motivated him to apply for scholarships offered by the Worcester State Foundation. He will receive the National Grid STEM Scholarship this year.

“I’m honored to get to it,” he says. “The award not only helps me financially, but it also shows to myself that my hard work is paying off and that others are noticing it!”

4 Responses

  1. Jesse Caney says:

    Lassen only has an engine. I detailed out with Diamond mtn shots for my fires.

  2. Fire fighter says:

    I was unaware Lassen volcanic national park had a Type 1 Interagency Hot Shot crew. My understanding is they only have type 2 I/A crew.

  3. Ramon Matias says:

    I know Jesse Caney personally. He’s an amazing guy, selfless in everything he does. I like to consider him one of my closest friends and deserves all the recognition he can get. If you can imagine a real life Clark Kent/Superman it would be him. God bless brother keep up the strong work.

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