Protecting life and limb

While at work, Rodney Redinger fights fire with fire. Literally. Redinger, who grew up in Burrton, is a wildland firefighter, teacher and commander.
As part of his job in fighting such fires, he and other firefighters have used what?s called ?back firing.?
?(The) idea is to set a fire in a controlled environment so that the main fire will hit the fire we set and will stop,? Redinger said. ?? Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn?t.?
The idea is for the fires to ram into each other. Firefighters start the fires with road flares or drip torches. If back firing doesn?t work, the main fire was going to jump their line anyway, Redinger said.
Redinger started his fire training more than a decade ago, receiving an associate?s degree in fire science in 1998 from Hutchinson Community College. He started fighting wildland fires in 1998, when he was hired in Colorado after his freshman year at Hutch. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado for five years on a hot shots crew, called the Pike Hot Shots.
?A hot shots crew is a group of 20 people,? Redinger said. ?They travel around the country fighting forest fires.?
During his first year as a hot shot, Redinger had the chance to see many parts of the country, as he worked in Florida, Texas, Colorado and Utah. Since then, he?s seen fires in many other states.
?I?ve been on a fire in 22 states,? Redinger said. ?I haven?t been to Alaska yet, which I?m kinda bummed about.?
After working with this group, Redinger moved back to Burrton in October 2002.
Now, he has a variety of jobs. He?s the fire training specialist for the Kansas Forest Service, where he is in charge of the program that qualifies people to fight forest fires all over the country. He also trains Kansas fire departments for their local grass fires and ?things like that,? Redinger said.
He has an office in the same building at HCC near Yoder where he received his fire science degree. When he was in school, the freshmen class had about 15 members; now, there are 80 freshmen in the fire science program.
Since moving back to Burrton, where he and his family now reside, the firefighter has had the opportunity to move up in qualifications to get supervisory positions, like being in charge of hand crews and engines. Just like hot shots, hand crews also have 20 people on them.
The primary job of a hand crew is to construct a hand line, which is basically a walking trail around the wildland fire in an attempt to contain it. Most of the time, they use chain saws to clean out a 20-foot-wide swath of brush and then incorporate a variety of tools, such as the Pulaski, to make a 2-foot-wide dirt path. This helps to contain the fire since dirt doesn?t burn. The Pulaski looks like an axe/garden hoe combination.
Part of the hand crew?s job is to go into remote areas, where there?s not a lot of access to water.
?So crews don?t use a lot of water,? Redinger said.
The only water they use is dropped from the sky by airplanes and helicopters.
The wildland firefighters battle blazes for two to three weeks at a time ? they?re not allowed to stay out for more than 21 days.
?I was gone for 45 (total) days this summer,? Redinger said.
He was sent to Colorado and several other states.
Before that, Redinger was the crew boss for Mid Plains Hand Crew from 2003 to 2008 with the Kansas Forest Service. Other organizations represented in this crew were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and National Park Service.
Ten years ago, Redinger and people from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started this hand crew. For their efforts, they received the Paul Gleason Lead By Example Award, which hangs on a wall in Redinger?s second-floor office.
After working with the Mid Plains Hand Crew, Redinger became qualified to be a division supervisor. In this position, for example, during a 5,000-acre wildland fire, he would be in charge of everything from mile 1 to mile 3, which would include personnel, engines and hot shots crews.
?Anything that was on that piece of the fire was my responsibility,? Redinger said.
At this same time, Redinger became a Type 3 incident commander. He said as incidents grow, they get more complex. A Type 1 incident is the most complex, which would involve more firefighters working the scene and houses being in danger.
?I?m kind of in the middle of the road,? Redinger said.
In 2012, he was an incident commander for a wildland fire in Idaho, which involved 100 firefighters and 12 aircraft.
?So, that?s what I do now,? Redinger said.
When he goes to fires now, he?s either a division supervisor or a Type 3 commander.
The goal with wildland fires is not always to put them out. Just because a fire starts, doesn?t mean it needs to be extingished, Redinger said. Firefighters have three choices at such a fire ? confining and containing, monitoring, and full suppression.
When public safety is in danger, they enlist full suppression. Sometimes, they just monitor the fire. Redinger said smaller fires that happen now can help avoid future catastrophic fires. For example, if an area has not had a fire for 100 years, that?s many layers and 100 years of fuel that?s been built up, which gives a fire more to burn. Such fires can sterilize the soil and become extremely large.
The biggest fire Redinger?s been to was a 170,000-acre inferno about 100 miles southwest of Denver in 2002.
Even though he?s been to many fires, Redinger has never felt like he was going to lose his life.
?There?s always times where you have to implement safety practices so you avoid bad situations,? he said. ?There?s never been a time when I?ve thought, ?Oh no. This is it.? There have been times when we?ve had to leave because a fire was getting ready to come at us.?
Redinger has a variety of reasons for fighting fires.
?Well, I enjoy traveling,? he said, sitting in his office during a late summer day. ?I enjoy the fact that we could be sitting here talking, my phone rings, and I could be on a plane going to a fire in California or wherever (soon).?
Another reason his likes his job is he gets to camp at some of the most beautiful places in the country, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone.
?Then, of course, I always have this belief, I guess, that people should give back to society ? that?s why I?m on the volunteer fire department in Burrton,? Redinger said. ?? I like to feel like I can contribute to a bigger picture than just my own little world.?
Redinger also is giving back to his community by serving on the Burrton city council for a little longer than four years.
Although he does enjoy his career, Redinger sees some challenges, like with most jobs.
?Some of the challenges is being gone,? he said. ?Some of the things that make youlove it are the same things that make you hate it.?
When he?s gone, he?s away from his family ? wife Molly, and daughters Ryann, 12;Teagan, 8; and Elyse, 9 months.
On a typical day in the field, Redinger gets up at 5 a.m., which is followed by an operational meeting and a briefing to all firefighters, describing the plan for the day, talking about weather conditions and fire behavior they?re expecting.
?And then we go to work,? Redinger said. ?Obviously, you?re dealing with the fire and environment ? things are going to change.?
Part of their day can be spent moving resources around, and they work until 8 or 9 p.m. that night with a meeting to follow. Dinner is from 9:30 to 11 p.m.
?You have to function at a high level for a long period of time, and if you don?t take a break, it?ll eat you up.? Redinger said about why firefighters are only allowed to work 21 days in a row.
What Redinger said he finds most rewarding, besides the firefighter part of the job, such as making right decisions and protecting people and natural resources, is helping younger firefighters get set up in their careers. For example, he teaches two entry-level wildland fire classes at Hutchinson Community College. He also finds it rewarding to teach students what he learns on jobs.
Also during the course of his career, Redinger has met two presidents ? Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. One time in 2002 when he was on the hot shots crew, as the group was getting ready to fight fires, the crew boss returned from a 6 a.m. meeting and told everyone they had to shower, shave and clean up.
?We were like, ?Why??,? Redinger said.
The crew boss said because they were invited to meet President Clinton at the
Daytona National Speedway. Clinton shook all of their hands. Later that summer in
Texas, they met then Gov. George W. Bush, who also shook their hands.
?Regardless of politics ? just being able to meet the president of the United States, I felt really honored to do that,? Redinger said.
Being a hot shot seems to be close to Redinger?s heart. He has The Hot Shot?s Prayer on his computer desktop at work. It ends, ?For if this day on the line, I should answer death?s call, Lord, bless my hot shot crew, My family, one and all.?
Reading this prayer was Brendan McDonough during the memorial service for his19 fellow elite hot shots crewmembers who were killed June 30 while fighting a blaze in Arizona.
Redinger was personally connected to some of them.
?I knew a couple of those guys, so that was a rough stretch,? he said.

Photos and Story by?Wendy Nugent

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