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Boone Native Ryan Campbell Spends Seasons Fighting Fires and Ski Patrolling, Seeks to Mentor Others with Similar Passions

This photo was taken on Ryan Campbell’s first rappel fire of this season. Photo courtesy of Ryan Campbell.

By Harley Nefe

Growing up in Boone, Ryan Campbell knew he had an interest in a career field surrounded by nature, as he is an outdoorsy person; however, he wasn’t quite sure how to achieve his goals.

“I think when I was 18 or 19, that’s when I started thinking that I wanted to get into fire, and I specifically remember driving my car really fast on mountain roads and being like, ‘Man, if I could get this feeling in a job, that would be really cool,’” Campbell said. 

This yearn for an adrenaline rush and adventure led Campbell into researching about smokejumpers, who are specially trained wildland firefighters who are inserted at the site of a fire by parachutes from planes and provide an initial attack response on remote wildland fires.

“I remember looking at their requirements and what it took to be a smokejumper and thinking it was the most insane, impossible task ever,” Campbell said. “But even when I was 18 or 19 years old, which was like 10 or 11 years ago now, I had this kind of dream in my mind, and then I tried to do whatever I could to get closer and closer.”

Campbell graduated from Watauga High School in 2009 and attended Appalachian State University. Throughout his college years, Campbell started volunteering with the Boone Fire Department in the summer of 2011, where he completed an EMT course and also learned the basics of emergency services and response, before graduating from college and receiving his bachelor’s degree in health education.  

“I was kind of thinking I was going to be a city fireman because I worked with Boone Fire Department while I went through college, and then I kind of shifted my focus to careers out west, and that’s how I ended up getting into ski patrolling in the winter time and wildland fire in the summer,” Campbell said.

Ryan Campbell working for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildland firefighter in a rappel helitack program. This photo was taken in the Eastern Sierra in California. Photo courtesy of Ryan Campbell.

By the winter of 2014, Campbell moved out west to the Lake Tahoe area in California. He received a job at Kirkwood, which is south of Lake Tahoe. At Kirkwood, Campbell worked as a dispatcher, where he learned the nuances of the mountains and how everyone worked together.

“I’ve been trying to piece it all together to get closer to that dream of doing something that I think is really valuable and that’s also challenging,” Campbell said. “To me, I don’t know if it’s adrenaline, but it’s kind of high stakes where you have to be on your game.” 

Campbell now works for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildland firefighter, which is a six month job and in the winter, he works for a ski resort, Alpine Meadows, as a ski patroller, where he still responds to medical emergencies and injuries on the hill in addition to avalanche control and using explosives on the mountain to make the slopes safer for skiers. 

“I think a lot of it is the challenge, but specifically, I’ve noticed that anytime I’ve been working outdoors, it’s always going to be exciting because nature is so unpredictable, so I think that challenge of just trying to understand nature and keep up with it,” Campbell said, “that’s the biggest thing that kind of drew me into it, and that’s what keeps me in these careers because you can never really expect what will happen. There’s trends, but Mother Nature kind of has a mind of her own.” 

Currently, Campbell lives full time in Truckee, California, which is where he works in the winter. In the summer, he lives in Wenatchee, Washington, which is about two hours west of Spokane.

Typically, Campbell will start ski patrolling in the first week of December and go until late April and early May depending. The fire season varies depending on what part of the country someone is working in, but for Campbell, he typically starts fire fighting in late April and goes until the first week of October. This allows him to have between two to four weeks off between seasons.

“There’s not a ton of time, but the time that you do have is more valuable than it would otherwise be because you are not used to it,” Campbell said. “I think a lot of people get to come home every night to their wife and family and they don’t know what it’s like to not have that, so they kind of get numb to how great that is. When I get home after spending two weeks out in the woods with the crew working 16 hour days, eating whatever food that’s provided and sleeping in the dirt and I come home to my house, my loving fiancé, my friends, and just normal life, I get to see it with fresh eyes. Even still, I can take things for granted, but I think I’m more grateful for the little things having spent time without some of those comforts.”

Campbell’s parents, John and Shelly Campbell, still live in Boone, and he has one brother, Richard. When asked what his family thinks of his career choice, Campbell said, “I think they are really happy with it. Obviously, I think they would like to see me more, but it is easy for them to pick up on the energy that I get from being fulfilled and that takes place in the west for me.”

When reflecting on his process of landing the positions he has, Campbell said working as a volunteer for Boone Fire Department really helped build his foundation. 

“Me being a volunteer as I was going through college was huge for me in getting an understanding and just learning the basics and sparking an interest in wildland fire,” Campbell said. “Even though large fires are not as common, Boone Fire Department has staff that are very knowledgeable and experienced in wildland fire. Just having good mentors and a great introduction was huge in building my passion.”

Ryan Campbell’s hotshot crew celebrating Fourth of July in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Ryan Campbell.

Within the Forest Service, there are different fire crews. There’s smokejumpers, engine crews, helitack crews, hand crews and Interagency Hotshot Crews. Engine crews are groups of firefighters that have a truck of water, and helitack crews are firefighters who work with helicopters. Campbell who worked for two seasons on a hotshot crew explained that those groups are like the frontlines, where the job entails building fireline, which is removing all the fuels from an area either as it’s burning or up ahead of the fire for when the fire gets there for it to not be able to get over the line. Hand crews are similar to hotshot crews, but don’t have the same amount of experience levels.

Campbell actually started out on a hotshot crew his first season with the U.S. Forest Service, and he believes it goes back to having volunteer fire experience.

“It’s pretty rare typically to get on a hotshot crew your first season,” Campbell said. “A lot of times, people start out on maybe an engine or a hand crew, but hotshot crews are where you get the most experience, so it was a huge opportunity for me to start out right there.”

Campbell then switched over to a rappel helitack program, where they have the ability to rappel out of helicopters in order to respond to small fires such as lightning strike fires in remote areas. The firefighters can rappel out of the helicopter onto the ground in a place where the helicopter couldn’t land and stop the fires while they are still small. For other assignments, they can do fire support such as using the helicopter for water bucket drops on the fire, delivering supplies, shuttling crew members to the fire or acting as overhead leadership on the fire and mapping what the fire is doing and performing recon missions. 

This photo was taken during burn operations at night. Photo courtesy of Ryan Campbell.

“My favorite crew is the one I’m working for right now, and that’s why I wanted to branch out and try something new because each of the modules have advantages and disadvantages really,” Campbell said. “Like hotshot crews is where you gain the most experience and you make the most money because you’re working a lot and you’re gone a lot. But the hotshot crews really test you physically because you’re just really doing some of that frontline work, where other modules might test your organizational skills or leadership skills or other areas of you might be more challenged, and they have more flexibility in terms of time off.”

Campbell also discovered that a lot of the tasks and responsibilities of fire fighting and ski patrolling overlap and connect.

“It’s super beneficial I think at the most basic level. Physically it’s nice to not have some big lull because in the fire stuff, physical training is super important to never really take a break, and to be consistently outside moving, skiing, hiking, is really beneficial,” Campbell said.

Skills that crossover from the different jobs include leadership abilities, critical thinking, stress management, effective communication and risk assessment.

As Campbell described, a typical day of ski patrolling if it snowed the night before involves getting to work around 5 a.m. to make sure explosives are ready to go if they are needed. Then the ski patrollers have a briefing meeting where they discuss what happened, how the snow came in, what the weather has been like, what the hazards are expected to be like for the day and what avalanche problems to look out for. Then the ski patrollers will either ride the chair lift or get in a snowcat to ride up to the top of the hill. They receive predetermined routes and route partners that they then go to predetermined spots by traversing, hiking or skiing downhill to test the slopes with explosives or ski cutting. The ski patrollers work their way down the hill by watching out for each other and having safety zones. Once they are done with their route, their shifts turn into normal ski patrolling activities.

Ryan Campbell doing avalanche control. Photo courtesy of Ryan Campbell.

Normal ski patrolling activities consist of setting up hill safety materials like signs and accomplishing certain assigned projects or conducting training, for example reviewing medical equipment that isn’t used that often.

“Then a lot of it is about just skiing because we need to be out and about on the hill in order to be able to respond to emergencies or to make sure that things look good and are safe and identifying hazards and then just constantly keeping that fresh picture of what the mountain looks like,” Campbell said. “Like in a storm cycle when it’s snowing a lot, it’s really important to know how things look everyday because you can remember, ‘Oh, this used to be steep and now it’s not nearly as steep. There’s probably a lot of snow that built up here, so that could be not a safe place to be in terms of an avalanche.’”

Campbell credits his two roles of ski patrolling and firefighting to individuals he met along the way who pointed him in the right direction, and by trying really hard, it all came together for him. 

“It’s like anyone can do it, but there are some things that happened to go right for me in order to get to this career field, and if they would have went the other way, then I probably wouldn’t be where I am because of some of those weird rules of the game that you have to know to get these jobs,” Campbell said.

One example of a rule of the game, Campbell said, is for resumes. Typically students are taught to have a one-page resume; however, for the U.S. Forest Service, Campbell’s resume is about 10 pages.

When applicants submit their resumes, because there are so many applicants, the systems are searching for keywords.

“You have to have those written on your resume in order to be rated for most qualified on the job,” Campbell said. “So, every tiny, little thing that you did working at whatever position in the past, you have to write it out. And I didn’t know that when I was first starting out, and you’re not going to be rated highest on the computer, and some individual person could really want to hire you and you’re not going to show up on their list at all. So, there’s a few little tips that can really make a big difference.”

Throughout Campbell’s various jobs, he had coworkers and friends who helped him and gave him pointers with his application materials and throughout the hiring process. Another big part of the hiring process, Campbell said, is physically traveling to meet the individual crews if someone is actually serious about getting the job. 

Ski patrollers performing avalanche control on a ridge. Photo courtesy of Ryan Campbell.

“No one is going to tell you that online. You’re never going to find that on a website,” Campbell said. “So, that’s another insider tip that it really pays to know that kind of thing.”

Now that Campbell has experience with the hiring process for the U.S. Forest Service and holding positions, he wants to use his life as an example and inspiration for others. 

“I really like it, and it’s interesting, I often think that I couldn’t have ever dreamed this when I was sitting in Boone, North Carolina, really,” Campbell said. “I didn’t know it was a thing, so I’m just trying to hopefully let folks who might be similar to me know that it is a thing, and it’s totally accomplishable.” 

If people are more interested in the winter aspects, Campbell said, he has the ability to get them the information they would need for those outdoor jobs as well.

However, Campbell wants to help young adults accomplish their dreams of moving west, specifically to work in wildland fire, as he knows some of the rules of the hiring process can be difficult and getting the communication started is huge. 

“It is kind of a nation wide trend that there are plenty of crews having hiring problems in the Forest Service, either retaining employees or getting good quality applicants in the positions, and so I’m just trying to help out both parties because I do have a passion, and I believe in the Forest Service’s mission and goal,” Campbell said. 

Campbell created a program called the Anchor Point Wildland Fire Mentorship Program, which is designed to help individuals interested in wildland fire apply to and prepare for jobs. 

“I’m just really trying to give back because I had certain people who helped me through the process, and I think they were super integral in helping me where I am today, and so I’m just trying to give back and give other people that opportunity because I’ve been on both sides of that fence,” Campbell said. “I tried to get into fire when I was a sophomore in college in North Carolina, and I called around and did what I could to gain information and apply for a bunch of jobs, but knowing what I know now, I really didn’t have a shot because I didn’t know those key pieces of information of like how you need to build your resume and how you should contact these people you want to work for and some of the rules of the game.”

Pictured are members of Ryan Campbell’s hotshot crew. Photo courtesy of Ryan Campbell.

Anchor Point works to give individuals the tools to develop federal hiring process resumes, preseason workout plans and access to contacts in the field. Anchor Point is also not affiliated with any government or private agency, it is simply a community based program.

Campbell said the most efficient way for him to be in contact with others is for them to reach out through his website. If someone is interested in wildland fire jobs, they can fill out the form online and then Campbell will be able to contact them and can help look at resumes, give tips on the process of applications, explain the differences between working on the different crews and provide phone numbers for contact information. 

Campbell said he wants to share with others all the information he has gained over the last three years, and he also knows other people he has worked with who have more experience and are willing to help get people in the right spots.

“The wildland fire community is a tight knit circle, and once you get in, you start making connections really quickly, but it’s hard to get in from the outside sometimes, so I’m just hoping to be like a liaison for anyone on the outside who has an interest in order to possibly get them in contact with someone that can kind of guide them further in terms of individual modules,” Campbell said. “But, I think in terms of one of the biggest things I think people need help with is navigating the federal hiring process, which because they are having to employ so many people, it has some hoops you need to jump through and some lingo that doesn’t really make sense to your average person. So, even a little bit of guidance in those areas can go a long way.” 

For the U.S. Forest Service positions, there is a general application process for every job, and interested applicants can create their profiles and resumes on USAJobs to look at the different job listings and duty locations. Campbell said the mountains of North Carolina are a great training ground for introduction and once someone goes out west, they can take their job as far as they want. However, there are plenty of opportunities on both the east and west coasts. 

“They’re good jobs that have a clear organizational structure where you can climb the ladder and can stay in it and really make as much money as you want to,” Campbell said. “The opportunities are kind of endless. It’s a career field where you don’t require any pedigree, so you’re basically only judged on how hard you work. It doesn’t matter where you came from or who you know really. It just matters how hard you work.” 

Applications for the U.S. Forest Service are usually due around the end of the summer and beginning of fall. Campbell said this year, hiring will close on Oct. 10 for most positions for next year. 

“I definitely want to give back to my hometown,” Campbell said. “Sometimes, the things going on in the world that are out of our control can feel overwhelming. I just know this is an area where I can have an impact. And that’s enough for me really, to do good and give back and give opportunities to people where I can be the most effective, and that’s in my hometown with jobs that I happened to get into.”