Posted 10/25/16 (Tue)
By Sydney Glasoe Caraballo
He chases the seasonal paths of fire and snow from the desert of Utah to the snow-capped peaks of Colorado.
Chad Bakken, a 2003 Divide County graduate, has taken advantage of a seasonal commute to accommodate two full-time, high-adrenaline careers.
When Bakken isn’t wielding a chain saw into a wildfire’s red, smoke-filled abyss, he’s dangling a 25,000-pound snow cat from a steel cable on a mountain cliff as it creeps down in the dark night.
Bakken spends his summers fighting wildland fires for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and his winters grooming the steepest ski slopes of Vail, Colo.
As summer ends, Bakken is camped out in the desert near his summer base at Vernon, Utah, which is just north of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest and west of Provo, while he talks about his work. His camper is his official summer residence, and this year he’s slept in a bed for a total of five days. When he’s fighting fires, he’ll resort to a tent if it’s raining or a bug-filled night. Mostly though, he prefers just a sleeping bag and the stars.
The firefighter, sporting a full beard, just returned home from a two-week assignment fighting the Canyon Fire in Southern California. It was a Type II fire (Type I is the worst, and Type V is the easiest to fight). The scale of fire is determined not just by the amount of acres burning, but also by the complexity of resources, assets and manpower necessary to control it. The Santa Ana winds – hot air coming off the desert and hitting the sea breezes – made parts of the Canyon Fire more difficult to control. By the time his team left, the fire had been downgraded to a Type V, which the local units will handle.
“They’ll just cruise the fire and mop up smoke. There’s no fuel outside of it left to burn,” he says. “But people drive by, see the smoke and think it’s still active. They’ll go after that smoke for the next three months to keep the public happy.”
The Canyon Fire made national news, but Bakken says the media doesn’t always cover the biggest and baddest.
For example, the Canyon Fire burned more than 4,500 acres, whereas the Pioneer Fire in Idaho burned more than 180,000 acres late this summer, according to the NASA.gov website.
Regardless of the fire’s size and complexity, Bakken enjoys the challenge of containing and controlling wildland fires. He’s currently an assistant engine captain with the BLM. He runs the fire engine and manages the firefighters tasked with that engine to fight fire. The engine crew is trained to properly utilize water to suppress fire, lay hose, operate chain saws and engage in prescribed burns, according to the BLM.gov website.
Before he secured a permanent job with the BLM, Bakken worked as a seasonal firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service from 2010 until this past season. His pack weighed 40 pounds and his chain saw 20 pounds as he hiked into the fires with his team.
“I learned lightning doesn’t usually strike close to the road,” he says, chuckling. “It was like training for two-a-days during football practice.”
He would wake up in the mornings that he wasn’t fighting fire, strap on his pack and gear and hike up the ski jumping hill followed by sit-ups and pushups with team members. Bakken, who also worked on the hotshot crew before moving to the fire engine crew, learned how to read the weather and how to attack and control the fire base, dig fire lines, cut down trees and remove debris, operate various firefighting equipment such as chain saws and conduct briefings and drills.
The most dangerous part of the job, according to Bakken, is getting to the fire amongst all the weakened trees. Beetle epidemics have weakened many of the trees’ structures; add fire, and the tree tops can easily come crashing down on the crew. One person – the squaddy – has the sole task of monitoring the crew’s health (hydration, nutrition and fatigue), as well as constantly monitoring their surroundings and assessing the danger.
Having served as squaddy, Bakken doesn’t mind working 16-hour days, 14 days straight. In fact, he thrives on the physical and mental rigors of the job.
“I fell in love with it,” he says. “I love being out in the woods and the unpredictability of the fire and the weather.”
Fuel, oxygen and wind. These are the dynamic variables of a fire that firefighters calculate in their battle equation.
“You can’t be complacent,” Bakken says. “You’ve gotta be on your game.”
Bakken has a degree in fire science from Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks, Minn. When first he thought about becoming a firefighter he assumed he would fight structure fires in a city and be settled down with a family by now. He chuckles and says he really just wanted to play hockey as a kid and didn’t do much consideration beyond that. But after several hockey injuries, he became a little more pragmatic.
When he graduated from Northland, Bakken knew he would fight fires in some capacity, but he also had several buddies (Buddy Bublitz, Will Ness, Shawn Sundberg and Ty Throntveit) who were spending their days skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, hunting and fishing in Vail, Colo. Their night jobs as snow cat operators grooming the ski slopes funded their fun, outdoor adventure lifestyle.
Bakken made one phone call and landed the other job he loves.
“You’re guaranteed a job in Vail if you’re a farmkid from North Dakota,” he says.
The Divide County natives earned a collective reputation at Vail for being gifted big equipment operators with a high-end work ethic and common sense integrity.
Bakken was eventually promoted to operating the winch cat. Where the slopes are so steep that a normal cat would fall down or off the mountain, the winch cat hooks a steel cable to an anchor point at the top and dangles down the slope to till and compact the snow.
“It’s a pretty fun deal,” says Bakken of the lonesome, winter night task.
He has worked at Vail as a cat operator since 2007 and is in his fourth season of operating the winch cat while working the 3:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift. He spends the end of November through March running the cat and April through October running the fire engine.
Bakken says his schedule is ideal for taking the first three weeks of November to hunt elk and deer in Colorado. He also manages up to 75 bartenders for fun at several national music festivals each year with friends who own festival and entertainment companies in the area.
“When I went to college, I wasn’t picturing myself sitting in a camper 10 years later in the desert,” says Bakken, who can be found riding his motorcycle, snowboarding, backpacking into the wilderness or cooking up fish he caught when he’s not at work.
“I work so I can recreate. I love the laidback mountain lifestyle.”