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.

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