Fighting Fire with Fire

Colorado West Fork Complex fire

Colorado National Guard members with the 1157th Engineer Firefighting Company drive down Colorado Highway 149 in Rio Grande National Forest during the West Fork Complex fire in a Tactical Fire Firefighting Truck, June 25, 2013. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by: Tech. Sgt. Wolfram M. Stumpf/RELEASED)

Long before SPC Ryan Benson joined the Army National Guard, he fought fires with the Colorado Bureau of Land Management Wildland Fire Program. It only seemed natural to continue doing what he loved when he became a Soldier.

“I had been fighting fires since high school,” he says. “When I joined the Guard, it was the natural thing to do.”

The Grand Junction, Colo., native has since fought three extreme wildfires as a 12M Firefighter with the 1157 Combat Firefighters Unit. He also volunteers as a fireman in his hometown and studies mechanical engineering at Colorado Mesa University. To say that his schedule is packed is an understatement.

When his unit deployed to the Black Forest wildfire near Colorado Springs earlier this year, he and his fellow Soldiers fought the blaze for nine straight days. The fire had spread over 14,280 acres and destroyed 511 homes.

SPC Benson’s unit was given two days off to rest, but another fire, this one near Wolf Creek Pass, badly needed additional resources. Called the West Fork Complex fire, it was comprised of three smaller fires that had merged into one, eventually covering 75,150 acres. The unit’s two-day reprieve was cut to one, and the group reported to duty for its second major wildfire in as many days.

Although his unit is trained to battle structure fires, aircraft fires, and wildland fires, the wildland fires have been demanding the most attention. Colorado is in its fourth year of drought or near-drought conditions. The weather has been so dry, one local newscaster quipped, “The weeds won’t even grow.”

SPC Benson and his crew do whatever is required to help local authorities battle the blazes. Special equipment helps. The Guard’s tactical firefighting trucks differ from the familiar red variety we see in civilian fire departments.

“They’re off-road engines that carry a lot of water to places where others can’t go,” he says.

The firefighting mission includes not only battling blazes but also saving homes and lives whenever possible.

“We get to the homes and clear out anything that’s easily flammable, like propane tanks,” he says. “Or we cut away trees close to the home, or use water or foam around the house to stop the fire.”

In some circumstances, the unit will do a controlled burn, which is literally fighting fire with fire. The firefighters ignite a carefully planned and highly controlled fire to engulf trees and brush, creating a line that a wildfire cannot cross because the fuel (the trees and brush) is gone.

When SPC Benson isn’t fighting fires with the Guard or his local volunteer department, he’s studying for his degree in mechanical engineering and using the Guard’s education benefits to help pay the bills.

In fact, SPC Benson was a college student before he was a Soldier. After a short time at college, he started to see the bills grow.

“I realized I had a lot of student loans and I needed a way to repay them,” he says.

The Guard sounded like an ideal move, especially since he knew he could continue his love of firefighting as an Army National Guard Firefighter.

He’s now close to finishing his bachelor’s degree and thinking about what’s next. It could include an advanced degree in biomedical engineering, and chances are good it will include more years with the National Guard.

“My hometown is a small town. The Guard has given me the opportunity to work with people from all over. It’s also given me leadership opportunities and great opportunities to learn.”

Whether you already have a skill that you’d like to bring to the Guard or you’re looking for a way to reduce the cost of college, visit the Army National Guard jobs board and contact a Recruiter today.

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