A Shield From the Flames

When specialist Milos Vujicic joined the Colorado National Guard, he thought he’d be a medic or a police officer. The Recruiter suggested firefighting, and Vujicic loved the idea. He’s been called to fight fires three times over the past two years. And each time, he’s set his nerves aside and put his training to work. Here’s what he had to say about coming to America, joining the Army National Guard, and becoming a 12M Firefighter.

SPC Milos Vijicic

More than three months after a raging wildfire scorched the Black Forest, near Colorado Springs, Colo., SPC Milos Vucjicic stands among some of the new growth in the devastated woodland area. More than 450 firefighters from multiple agencies and jurisdictions fought the blaze that burned 14,000 acres in June 2013.

I was born and raised in Serbia. The first time I came to America was 2007. I flew from Germany to Denver, and I remember the airport in Denver looked like a tent. I flew from there to Anchorage, and I spent a summer in Alaska working at a resort. I fell in love with America and the way of life here. I love the freedom. I love the opportunity. If you work hard, it pays off. You don’t have to worry about, “Do I know somebody, or does somebody know me?”

Back home, there’s a lot of corruption. If you want to get a job, you have to know somebody, or pay somebody, to get one. Here, if you have credentials, they hire you. Once you get a job, if people see that you work hard and know what you’re doing, you can get a better position and better pay. That’s how I was raised. That’s what my parents taught me.

After that summer in Alaska, I eventually moved to the United States. I chose Colorado because I had a friend here. As soon as I got my green card, I joined the National Guard because I wanted to give back to this country that I fell in love with.

I remember talking to a drill sergeant about being deployed so many times. He talked about how fortunate we are to be where we are. That reminded me of my own story, and how fortunate I am to be where I am. It reminded me not to take anything for granted.

High Park Fire, 2012

The High Park fire in north-central Colorado was the second largest and second-most destructive fire in state history, burning more than 87,000 acres.

I was coming back from vacation in California when my unit first went to the High Park fire. Specialist Duran Cornelius texted me something like, “Oh, man, you should’ve been here.” I called my commander, at the time, Warrant Officer 1 John Buchanan, now a chief warrant officer 2. I said, “Sir, I want to help fight this fire. Whatever you guys need.”

That first fire, I was in support. I helped provide the firefighters with water. I positioned the trucks in designated areas. I assisted putting out a few hot spots. I learned a lot, about the language of fighting fires and about how weather changes a fire. I spent a lot of time with First Sergeant John Schreiber. He’s like a book full of firefighting information. However much you want to ask of him, that’s how much you can learn.

West Fork Complex Fire, 2013

This blaze in the southwestern mountains affected four counties.

One day, I was driving a fire truck with Specialist Joseph Holliway. We were looking for hot spots. I saw a police officer. He said, “Do you see that black smoke over there?” I looked where he was pointing and saw thick smoke. So I hauled over there.

I was new to the unit and still learning how to maneuver the truck. I was full of adrenaline already, and now I had to squeeze the fire truck into a really narrow spot. We were on our way to a fire so I wanted to do everything fast. But I had to stay calm and not hurt anybody or myself or damage the equipment.

My first sergeant was watching. I felt like I had to prove myself. I thought back to one of my instructors in fire school. He said that when you look at a duck gliding across the water, you think it’s smooth and effortless. But underneath, his feet are paddling like crazy. That’s how firefighters have to do their jobs—calm on the outside, but inside, your heart is beating as fast as a duck’s feet.

I made it. I didn’t hit a tree or anything. I parked the truck, and Specialist Holliway grabbed the bumper turret and sprayed the plastic fire with foam and water. It was an intense fire. Burning plastic is sometimes harder than anything else to put out.

Black Forest Fire, 2013

The most devastating in Colorado history in terms of structural damage, the fire near Colorado Springs destroyed more than 500 homes.

Another time, specialist Ryan Hawley, specialist Evan Rose and I arrived at a garage fire. The house next to it was in danger.

Your adrenaline went up, but you had to stay calm. You have to be aware of what was going around you, and not just for you, for your buddy, too—in this case, Specialist Hawley. He was my second set of eyes, and I was his.

When an intense fire like this one gets into the trees, it burns everything in its way. There’s nothing you can do. Not even those big choppers can do anything. So you go ahead of it and try to salvage stuff there. That’s what we did at the garage fire—we tried to save the house.

I stood 20 or 30 feet from the garage. I couldn’t get much closer—the fire burned intensely. A helmet and mask covered my face. Even with my gear—boots, gloves, pants, and shirt—I could feel the heat. I heard popping come from the garage. I don’t know what it was—paint or propane, maybe. For 20, 30 minutes, we sprayed the fire, trying to keep the flames and heat away from the house.

We were trying to keep the fire in the garage and away from the house. We didn’t want the heat to spread to the house and combust it, so while we sprayed the garage, we also tried to cool the house. We pushed the walls of the garage, too, so when they fell they fell away from the house—and away from us.

The garage totally burned out—there was nothing we could do about that.

But we saved the house.

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