Person of the Week
Emily Shafer Blazes Her Own Trail
Working for the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, Emily Shafer learned about the Connecticut Interstate Fire Crew (CIFC), a team of special firefighters who help battle wildfires across the nation. Today, the Madison resident is part of the CIFC and has been to California and Colorado to help fight the wildfires there. (Photo courtesy of Emily Shafer )
When 24-year old Emily Shafer traveled from Madison to California earlier this year, some may have assumed she was going to soak up the sun and enjoy the white-sand beaches.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Emily went with a team of Connecticut firefighters to help battle wildland fires that continue to rage in the Golden State. She is a wildland firefighter with the Connecticut Interstate Fire Crew (CIFC), a team of special firefighters who work with government agencies across the country to protect lives, property, and natural resources threatened by wildfire.
It might seem strange, but when Emily fights fires, she doesn’t use a hose, water, or fire retardant. That’s because Emily is a faller, a designation for someone who uses a chainsaw to clear brush.
She explains, “A chainsaw is a vital tool on a fire line because in order to build [a] fire line, we must cut brush and trees. To reduce fuel, we can cut everything out of the path of the fire and then refine that line through the use of hand tools.”
As far as handling water hoses, she admits, “I have very little experience with pumps and hose line because I don’t work with an engine.”
California has been plagued with wildfires for years, but 2020 seems to be a particularly severe year.
In late September, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported on its website that close to 8,000 wildfires have so far resulted in more than 3.6 million acres burned, 26 confirmed fatalities, and more than 7,600 structures destroyed or damaged.
Firefighting is a dangerous and challenging job, which is why CIFC members undergo an initial rigorous training program that includes classroom time, field exercises, and physical agility testing.
Emily says that she joined CIFC in 2018 and had to take a class about the use of chainsaws on a fire and chainsaw maintenance. Although she has several years cutting experience, she says she had to be signed off by another sawyer on her most recent trip to earn the title of basic faller.
“I still have many, many years ahead of me before I would consider myself an actual sawyer,” she says.
Battling a forest fire is not at all like fighting a regular blaze, Emily also explains.
“Wildland firefighting is a lot different from structural firefighting, from the uniforms we wear, to the techniques we use, to the terrain we cover. We wear lightweight, fire-resistant shirts and pants made out of Nomex, a fire-resistant material. In order to stop forest or wildfires, we make a fire line to stop the progression of the fire,” she says.
Though the techniques for fighting fires are different, watching out for each other is still one thing that is consistent.
The team, Emily explains, works as an entire crew, usually 20 people, or within squads, usually around five people.
“On my most recent assignment we went out as a 10-person module and didn’t split up the whole time,” she says. “We’re always watching each other’s back and it is every individual’s responsibility to speak up if they feel something is unsafe.”
As for living in close quarters with her fellow firefighters, the living arrangements for wildland firefighters is as close to “roughing it” as can be.
“We usually work 12- to 16-hour days, depending on what is needed from us. We dig a fire line, patrol, mop up a fire—make sure all the hot spots are dug out and cold—or wait for a new start and immediately attack it. Usually, we are supplied with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but depending on the day ahead, we eat meals ready-to-eat (MREs) or are bought food. At night, we usually set up tents and camp in a fire camp or in a safe spot near the fire. We work for 14 days on the line before being sent home,” Emily says.
“Physically, the job is very demanding,” she adds. “There is also a lot to learn and a lot to remember. It’s also interesting learning to coexist with 20 people for 14 days straight in close quarters.”
Has she ever felt scared fighting a fire?
Well, no, not really.
“I trust my squad boss or crew boss 100 percent to never put us in a dangerous situation,” she says.
Aside from California, Emily has been to Colorado with the team to battle a wildfire in 2018. She’s also fought fires in Connecticut.
Emily’s involvement with CIFC came about as an offshoot of her job as a maintainer with the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP); one of DEEP’s areas of responsibility is forest fire prevention and control.
Her love of the outdoors may have led her to work for the DEEP. It also led her to horsemanship lessons; for 18 years, she’s been riding horses, an activity she terms as one of her “greatest hobbies.” At one point, she even volunteered at a therapeutic riding farm helping children with physical and mental disabilities to find relief through horses.
Her family takes pride in her involvement with firefighting and natural resources protection. She is the daughter of Charles and Stacy Shafer and she has three siblings, Erin, Matt, and Brendan.
Recalling her recent firefighting experiences, she says, “I always love the moments when we’re eating dinner as a crew and we’re all talking about the day’s work… Everyone’s talking and laughing and it’s always a great feeling.
“I feel so proud to be a part of such a dedicated, intelligent, strong group of people. I have met some great friends through this group and pushed myself further than I thought possible. I’m so lucky to be able to experience this and can’t wait to continue going out on trips.”
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