Firefighters on a cross-country mission

Local volunteers battle flames and nerves on dangerous expeditions

August 18, 2004|By Artika Rangan | Artika Rangan,SUN STAFF

Don Kronner has been through plenty in nearly 20 years of fighting forest fires - catching bear cubs, riding on buses that have rolled over, extinguishing blazes across the country. But the seasoned Maryland DNR Forest Service firefighter still gets nervous before each mission.

"It's hard, hot, dirty work," said Kronner, 46, yesterday morning as he and 19 others from the state's Interagency Wildland Fire Mobilization program mustered in Harford County for a trip to help battle wildfires in Northern California. "But it's fun. There's always an adventure."

Kronner and his crewmates yesterday stuffed red travel packs with fire-retardant clothing, goggles, hard hats and canteens in preparation for a two-week stint with crews from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Steve Koehn, director of the Department of Natural Resources Forest Service, said the crew would not know their assignment until their expected arrival at the deployment station in California yesterday. Their work, he said, could include cleaning up after fires or extinguishing any blazes that arise.

The Maryland crew includes AmeriCorps/National Civilian Community Corps members, state employees from the state forest service and volunteer firefighters. The firefighters are paid through an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, which typically sends them to Western states because of the drought and the potential for large fires, Koehn said.

Daniel Lemmon, 40, has traveled yearly on these types of assignments since 1994 and has reached one conclusion: "Each fire is different."

Lemmon, a Harford County resident and firefighter for Baltimore County at Station 17 near Cockeysville, said the trips often include 14-hour shifts, days without showers and nights of sleeping on the side of a mountain. But, he maintains, "It's the best job."

Dan Pearson, 31, of Worcester County, agrees. In the past seven years, he has assisted with fires in numerous states. Traveling is his favorite aspect of the program.

"It's a paid camping trip where you can play with fire," he said.

This trip will be a first for some, including Sergio Castillo, a firefighter for Girdletree Volunteer Fire Company in Worcester County who looks forward to helping out. "I know it's hard work," he said, "but somebody's got to do it."

Like Castillo, Dorian Koczera, an AmeriCorps/NCCC volunteer, is new to the program. The California resident entered the fire mobilization program through a partnership between the state forest service and AmeriCorps.

Koczera, who has spent the past months working at the NCCC site in Harford County, said the experience will help him decide whether to pursue firefighting in the future.

"I really have no idea what to expect," he said. "I'm guessing it will be crazy and adventurous."

Tom Reed, a volunteer at Soldier's Delight in Owings Mills, has participated in the program for three years and has great expectations for this trip.

"The most exciting part is the potential to see the big blowups that you see on the news," said Reed, 44. "I'm still waiting for that."

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