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Boone Native Ryan Campbell Spends Summer Fighting California Fires

Fighting the wildfires in California this summer has given Boone native, Ryan Campbell, a new appreciation for life.

By Sherrie Norris

While most young men would prefer surfing the California coast on any given summer, Boone native Ryan Campbell chose, instead, to spend his recent summer fighting the California wildfires that have claimed thousands of acres, numerous homes, businesses and even lives.

Campbell, who graduated from Watauga High School in 2009 and Appalachian State University in 2013, moved to Lake Tahoe in the winter of 2014 and still spends his winters as a ski patroller at Alpine Meadows.

Currently working for the Truckee Hotshots, based in Truckee, California, Campbell had earlier completed the required basic wildland fire classes as a volunteer firefighter for Boone Fire Department several years ago; he had no idea, until recently, just what an impact that training would have on his life. Additionally, he is a certified Emergency Medical Technician, which he said, is helpful, especially for medical incidents occuring within his crew.

Campbell’s first season working wildland fire has been an experience he will never forget, he said, and when asked about the risks involved, he responded, “It’s all worth it.”

The “the key,” he emphasized, “is to take measured amounts of risk and to stay sharp with training and sound decision-making.”

When it comes to risky situations, Campbell said, he “likes the rush” and being a part of a good cause. “But at the end of the day, the only thing I would lay it all on the line for is not trees and houses, but for my fellow crew members.”

Campbell’s crew just finished its fourth “roll of the season,” explaining the “rolls” as two-week assignments.

“We have been on the Pawnee, County, Ferguson, Mendocino Complex and Hirz fires, and we just got back from the Delta fire near McCloud” he said. “Most of the fires we have been to have been large campaign fires with hotshot crews, engine crews, heliitack crews (often considered to be elite members of the firefighting community, transported to the fires by helicopters) and contractors from all over the country — from Maine to Colorado, and even from New Zealand and Australia.”

A “typical day” for Campbell and his fellow firefighters, he described, was waking up around 6 a.m., eating breakfast in the camp and getting supplies ready for the day.

“After the overheads’ briefing, we head out to the line and get to work cutting line, burning or whatever else is needed,” he explained. “We work until 7:30 or 8 each evening and rehab our waters and fuel before heading back to camp. We eat dinner around 9 p.m. and bed down around 10 on our sleeping pads and bags — wherever is flat, dark and quiet.”

That rigorous schedule continues for 14 days before a two-day break — and then, they do it all over again.

The devastating fires in California this summer have claimed thousands of acres, numerous homes and businesses.

Campbell’s crew of 20 includes six “overhead” supervisors, one of which is the superintendent.

“We have four saw teams, which are made up of a sawyer who runs the chainsaw and one swamper who moves the cut brush. The rest of the crew is called the scrape, which uses hand tools to scrape down to the mineral soil.”

Campbell further explained, “When cutting line, the saws cut a swathe between 20-30 feet wide and the scrape makes a three- foot hand line. I work as a swamper for the second saw team.”

His “hardest shift,” Campbell said, was definitely the first full shift of the season.

“It was 105 degrees and we cut line all day in steep country, working through brush, double overhead, and all tangled together,” he described. “Being my first real shift, I came out of the gate hot and worked really hard, and by just after lunch, I was struggling to walk.”

Thankfully, he added, “Other crew members brought more water, and it started to cool off around 5 pm.” Throughout that shift, Campbell recalled, he drank two gallons of water and three Garorades. “And I was still cramping.”

The main personal challenges he’s encountered include just not having much time alone, missing out on a few special events and weddings, and summer fun, in general. But at the same time, he said, he’s been able to see Yosemite, and experienced “some other cool stuff.”

At the end of the season, he hopes to have a couple weeks off work, which he plans to spend traveling to see family and friends before returning to his winter job as ski patrol. 

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is just overall mental toughness,” Campbell surmised. “I’ve also really recognized how many luxuries we take for granted in normal life — sleeping in a bed, meeting up with buddies after work, cell service, or coming home to my girlfriend every night.  I’m sure I’ll slip back into taking those things for granted, eventually, but I’m going to try to be more thankful for those kinds of things. All of this gives me a new appreciation for life — especially when people all around you are losing everything.”

Campbell is the son of John and Shelly Campbell of Boone. He has one brother, Richard.

Heavy smoke in the distance signals distress for thousands of homeowners in the path of the destructive California fires