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An Irish firefighter speaks

by Anna Ferraro

He stated that the conversation would have been best accomplished over warm whiskey, a couple of hours, and should have included ample stories of Northern Ireland and the peace process. His name was Agner, so I wasn’t surprised. I could almost feel his Irish blood boiling between his lines as he talked about “fire.” Let’s just say, we abandoned the one-paragraph answers early on in the interview process. But at the end of our chat, one thing was certain – most people, including myself, actually know very little about the culture and mechanics involved in forest fire suppression. In which case, when a forest firefighter like Jon Agner speaks, regardless of whiskey or time constraints, it’s worth a good listen.

Agner is presently the forest fire management officer (fire chief) in Upper Peninsula, Michigan. But he hasn’t always been a fireman. A graduate of Jacksonville High School (class of 1981), his family moved to Jacksonville when he was in the 5th grade. After completing high school, Agner headed off to the Illinois Air National Guard. From there, he transferred to active duty Air Force as a crew chief on F-4 fighter jets, then to working for Lockheed Aerospace in California – fast-moving jobs, all.

In 1987, after resigning from Lockheed, he headed off to attend the University of Montana, and, as he said, “the rest is history.” He’d found his true love there in Montana on the fire line. Yeah, there’s something about Type A Irishmen. You’ll find ‘em where the action is.

Agner shares, “I started fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service in 1988. … Been at it since.” Starting out as a seasonal employee, he soon fell in love with the job. Going at it full-time, he climbed the ranks to engine captain, district fire management officer, up to his current position as the fire chief for the Hiawatha and the Ottawa National Forests in the ‘UP’ of Michigan, where he has been stationed for two years. Agner commented, “It was a tough decision to leave Montana where I spent most my career. But it was a great move – the Upper Peninsula is beautiful and the challenges of the new position are very rewarding.”

When asked about his work, he explained, “Wild land firefighting is a lot different than structural firefighting, and so are the personality types that are drawn to it. … Outdoorsy; Individualistic; Type A or AA personality. While a Forest Service (FS) firefighter’s primary job is to fight wild land fires, they are considered forestry technicians and are responsible for many aspects of public land management, not just fighting fires.”

Hence, besides fighting fires, a United States Forest Service (USFS) firefighter works to improve habitat and reduce dangerous fuel buildup, helping prepare timber sales, conducting wildlife surveys, cleaning campgrounds and more. As Agner put it, “When we’re not fighting fires, we are busy with the day-to-day work of managing public lands. There’s no sitting around waiting for a fire call.”

Since they never have a chance to sit around, Agner said, “We keep our ‘two-week fire bag’ with us at all times. It has all of our fire gear and equipment we need to camp out on a mountainside for up to two weeks while fighting a fire. We are required to be on 2-hour call back, 24-7, which means we have to be ready to deploy anywhere in the U.S. within two hours of receiving orders.” That’s quite a string of suspense on which to live, but Agner’s Irish blood fuels him for the task.

With regard for the natural processes of fire in forests, Agner mused, “The well-intentioned, but misguided practice of putting all forest fires out for almost 100 years has led to millions of acres of unhealthy forests, and forests that burn much more intensely than nature ever intended. I’ve seen a significant change during my career. When I started in 1988, a 3,000- to 10,000-acre fire was considered very large. We now deal with those size fires on a regular basis.” In addition to it getting worse each year, Agner observed, “the season is getting longer every year, as well. In recent years, we’ve been dealing with wildfires somewhere in the U.S. from February through December.”

These factors present huge challenges to the forest firefighters – a topic that Agner was more than willing to hash out. “It’s a dangerous job, and ensuring our firefighters have the training, experience and tools they need to do the job without getting hurt is getting more challenging. It’s all about risk management, and minimizing exposure. As wildfires continue to get larger and exhibit more extreme fire behavior, it’s a delicate balance to attack a fire aggressively and manage the risk you expose firefighters to. Unfortunately, we lose brave young men and women every year on the fire line.”

This factor comes close to home for Agner, something he communicated when he shared that his oldest daughter is a ‘FS’ firefighter in Montana. He said with feeling, “I worry about her a lot.” Just two weeks prior to the interview, Agner’s daughter had led the initial attack of a small forest fire on a Montana mountainside. In the attack, a burning tree killed a 19-year-old firefighter on her team – the little brother of a good friend of hers, no less. It’s hard to describe the devastation a firefighting team feels in those moments.

Agner further shared, “The wild land firefighting community is a small one. … When somebody is killed, chances are, you know or have worked with them. It’s the worst part of the job. It’s not a career for the faint of heart. Another challenge is the amount of time away from home. There is a lot of time on the road and catching up that has to be done by phone instead of face-to-face.”

Emotional challenges aside, there are some incredible energy requirements to being a USFS firefighter – they see some of the longest work hours of any occupation. Agner explained, “When we deploy to wildfires, we work 14-21 days straight (16-hour shifts) … before taking a mandatory two days off.” Thus, working a 112-hour work week is common on a large wildfire incident. Agner quipped, “When someone talks about working a 40-hour work week, wild land firefighters like to ask: ‘So, you work 40 hours a week? What do you do after Tuesday?’”

On a brighter note, Agner shared, “The rewards of the job are equally as strong. I get to work outside in some of the most remote and beautiful places in the country, alongside hardworking, adventurous and dedicated young men and women. The friendships forged in the heat of a wildfire last a lifetime.”

And variety. When it comes to variety, Agner couldn’t complain, saying, “I’ve been on wildfires from Alaska to Florida – 24 states in total – so far. … All assignments are different and interesting. As an example, in 1996, I spent 21 days on the top of Mount Graham in southeast Arizona, protecting the Vatican’s multi-million dollar radio telescope from a large wildfire. … Mission successful. We saved the ‘Pope’s Scope.’”

The pinnacle reward that Agner mentioned was “the feeling of accomplishment when you have to evacuate a subdivision, or small town, then successfully control the fire without losing a structure – and the look of relief on the homeowners when they come back and see their home still standing. It’s pretty awesome. … All in all, it’s very rewarding work.”

Agner currently resides in Iron River, Michigan, with his wife, Keely, and two dogs, Loki and Thor. His oldest daughter is a firefighter in Lolo National Forest, and his younger daughter is a folk/rock musician. When not on fire assignments, Agner and his wife enjoy spending time with the dogs and sail boating on Lake Superior.

Captain Kershaw competes

By Lynn Colburn

City of Jacksonville Fire Department Captain Beth Kershaw competed in the first CrossFit Competition of the World Police & Fire Games in Los Angeles on August 14 and 15. Not only did Kershaw compete, she finished 4th in the world in the firefighter category in her age bracket!

Kershaw, the only female full-time firefighter in Jacksonville, does not look for or want publicity for herself. She will talk about the department, point to other firefighters’ accomplishments, but she is reluctant to talk about herself and her accomplishments both in career and in the sport of CrossFit.

Kershaw grew up in Arenzville. She says she teases the other firefighters that she is from “God’s country,” as most of them are from Jacksonville. She went to Triopia and played basketball, softball and ran track. She says her journey as a firefighter just kind of evolved. “I tore up my knee in high school running and playing basketball, then went to Illinois College to play basketball and tore up my knee again playing basketball.” Kershaw graduated from Illinois College in 1986 with a physical education degree. “Later I broke a bone in my foot while running in Arenzville and my doctor told me I should find another sport that put less stress on my joints.”

In May 1990, she moved to Jacksonville. “I took a scuba course with Bob Fitsimmons and got my certification. I enjoyed it and loved helping people, so that all led me to joining the dive team in Jacksonville.” The Jacksonville/Morgan County Underwater Search & Rescue Dive Team is responsible for the rescue and/or recovery of near-drowning and drowning victims within Jacksonville and Morgan County.

Participating in the dive team pointed the way to Kershaw to becoming an emergency medical technician (EMT). “Not long after I became an EMT, I saw an ad in the newspaper for a position at the Jacksonville City Fire Department. I have been on the dive team and an EMT now for 30 years and have been at the Jacksonville City Fire Department for 27 years, the first two years as a secretary/dispatcher and 25 years fighting fires.” She earned the rank of captain in 2007.
“As firefighters, we always try to do different competitions among ourselves as a way to stay fit for this demanding job, contests included stair climbing, a biathlon and a firefighter challenge,” said Kershaw. “Steve King and Curt Rueter (fellow firefighters) talked me into trying CrossFit. A group of firefighters all do CrossFit at various locations around town including Carriage House CrossFit, T3 (Triple Threat Training) and Redbird CrossFit at the YMCA.”

CrossFit helps the firefighters to build both the strength and stamina needed for their jobs. CrossFit combines major weight lifts with basic gymnastics, and with a hard and fast bike, run or row. By mixing these elements in many combinations and patterns and keeping workouts short, intense and varied, it builds muscles and strength. Kershaw injured her shoulder during work and has spent the last two years focusing on CrossFit as a way to rehab her shoulder.

Kershaw competed in her very first CrossFit competition at the Capital City CrossFit’s “IceBreather Classic” on January 21. It was a two-person, same sex team taking part in the high-level athletic competition. The masters division consisted of two same-sex competitive partners whose total age equaled at least 80 years. Kershaw (age 52) competed with her niece, Allison Phelps (28). Kershaw had joined the worldwide online CrossFit competition and only the top 10 (five firefighters and five policemen) were invited to join this prestigious World Police & Fire Games in each age group. The Capital City competition qualified Kershaw to receive her invitation. Approximately 10,000 athletes representing firefighters, law enforcement and officers from corrections, probation, border protection, immigration and customs, all representing more than 65 countries across the world were competing in 65 Olympic-style sports. These games offer more sporting disciplines than the Summer and Winter Olympics combined. The mission of the games is to promote sports and physical fitness among the law enforcement and firefighting community worldwide.

Kershaw says Steve King also qualified for CrossFit at the World Police & Fire Games in his age bracket, but instead competed in the 2017 Reebok CrossFit Games in Madison, Wisconsin, on August 3-6, a greater accomplishment. King chose to be Kershaw’s coach at the games. “King, along with Jolene Campbell, came to Los Angeles with me for support,” said Kershaw. “The best part of the CrossFit workouts is the people. It’s the community you meet and work out with. They are a family group.” Kershaw began CrossFit at Carriage House in 2013 and is part of the early morning workout group. “Without CrossFit, I would not have been comfortable getting back to 100 percent for the job.” She said she received so much help and support from all the people at Carriage House during her shoulder rehab, she didn’t want to leave anyone out in her thank you. “Everyone was supportive and encouraging and they cheer you on to complete your workout.”
Carriage House CrossFit held a fundraiser July 7 and all funds raised were used to benefit the expenses of Captain Kershaw.

“I am proud to represent our City of Jacksonville and our fire department. I have always loved helping people and being in public service.” Kershaw feels she owes it to our community to stay fit for her job. She tries to work out at Carriage House as often as she can. Congratulations, Captain Kershaw!

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Prairieland Chautauqua

Many Americans are familiar with some of the famous persons from World War I era, known at the time as the “Great War.” We think of: Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president who took the country to war 100 years ago; or John “Black Jack” Pershing, the general Wilson appointed to lead the American war effort;…

Big Brothers Big Sisters program

To be a “Big” (a mentor) in a Big Brothers Big Sisters program is an exciting opportunity and provides a major benefit for the community in which you live. It provides a supportive relationship for a kid in the community that for many turns into a longterm source of growth and success.

This was the case for Kristi Lumbeck and Crystal Nevel. Kristi and Crystal were matched in 1986, when Kristi began at MacMurray College as a freshman. The two would eat in the MacMurray dining hall together and study on campus. Kristi would help Crystal with her reading for the Book-It program, which would turn into pizza prizes at Pizza Hut. The time the two spent at MacMurray encouraged Crystal to pursue college as well, as she herself attended MacMurray once she graduated high school.

Once Crystal turned 18, she became a “Big” for us, returning the support that Kristi gave her for many years while the two were matched. Kristi reminisced about her time as a “Big,” saying, “When my husband and I started dating, he was a ‘Big.’ It’s one of the things I loved about him, because I knew what a big impact it makes in a child’s life. Once we were married, we became a ‘Big’ couple to three different boys; two in Jacksonville and one in Marshalltown, Iowa. We went to our ‘Littles’’ ball games, took them out to eat and played games.”

The two have remained in contact, as matches often do even once they leave the program. Crystal went on to become a teacher, which was the same profession into which Kristi chose to go. One of Crystal’s favorite memories was being a part of Kristi’s wedding. Kristi was under the impression she wasn’t going to be able to make it, but Crystal was able to surprise her.

Kristi and Crystal’s story highlights the amazing impact you can make by volunteering to be a “Big” in our program. “I am positive that if not for Kristi and my relationship with her, I never would have gone to college or become a teacher like her. The positive role model and unconditional love she provided for me kept me out of trouble.”

If you’d like to sign up to be a “Big,” give us a call at 217-243-3821 or visit our website at www.bigbrothersbigsisterswci.org.