Feelin’ the Fire: My Weekend Training as a Volunteer Firefighter

Father’s Day is normally a time to relax, watch golf, eat too much for brunch, doze off in the recliner and awaken just in time for dinner.

This year was a little different.

Pete at his weekend home while training with the Paradise Valley Fire Department
Morning Coffee at Camp

Last November, I decided to become a volunteer fireman at the Paradise Valley Fire Department in Emigrant, Montana. Due to limited government resources—and Montana being a big place—folks up here rely heavily on the efforts of volunteers to assist with incidents ranging from car accidents, medical emergencies, structure fires and full-fledged wildland blazes.

This past weekend, I had the privilege of participating in CAT Camp, an intense training program for firefighters interested in becoming qualified to assist in wildland firefighting campaigns. CAT stands for the County Assist Team, which essentially was formed in 1990 to help rural and volunteer fire departments when wildfires grow beyond the capability of a local jurisdiction. The team, sponsored by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), is a blend of men and women firefighters of all ages and from all walks of life.

Pete in front of the State of Montana Mobile Command Center
Montana Mobile Command Center

The CAT Camp that I attended replicated one of the actual fire camps found in the vicinity of a large-scale wildland fire. We learned how to set up camp, check in with incident command and learn our role assignments. Training included engine and pump operations, building a fire line, controlling a live burn, and “mop-up” to ensure a controlled fire is completely extinguished.

The volunteer's weekend campground.
Tent City forms during camp set-up.

The highlights of the weekend were two live burns. The first thing I noticed was that wildland fires are . . .  well . . . HOT. You need to keep a proper distance when fighting the fire, pay close attention to your surroundings, and watch for changing conditions.

Volunteers complete their training by participating in controlled burns.
An instructor walks along the perimeter of a controlled burn.

The instructors were top-notch—friendly, patient and highly knowledgeable. They constantly emphasized safety, which I’m sure my loved ones appreciated.

As we enter the hot summer months, wildland fires are inevitable. If you are vacationing and happen to see a large fire crew, give them a thumbs-up. They are out there fighting to keep our forests green, property protected and families safe!

Volunteers walk toward the controlled burn training area.
Pete walking with other crew members toward the location of the fire.

Hell’s A Roarin’ Ranch

In the spring of 1982, Warren Johnson and his wife, Susan, decided to purchase an outfitting and guiding business at a mountain ranch outside Gardiner, Montana. The plan was to raise horses—as well as their children—in a bucolic setting that boasted a breathtaking view of Yellowstone National Park.

To grow the business, Warren purchased 15 horses and had them delivered to the rodeo grounds in Gardiner. However, lacking a horse trailer, Warren was left to wonder how he would get the animals up to his Hell’s A Roarin’ Ranch.

No trailer? No problem. With the help of a 9-year-old boy who was staying with the Johnsons, Warren ran the horses through the alleys of Gardiner before heading up toward his property. “I always thought that this was the best way to move horses, and it added a little bit of Western excitement to the gateway community of Gardiner,” he explains.

Just like that, the annual Hell’s A Roarin’ Horse Drive was born. A few years ago, the Johnsons decided to invite the public to join in the celebration, and the Horse Drive is now a thriving fundraiser, held each spring during Memorial Day Weekend. This year, proceeds from the event will benefit the Montana Raptor Conservation Center and Western Montana Search Dogs.

The action begins at 1 p.m. in Gardiner. Following the 9-mile trek up to the ranch, there is a Montana barbecue, cowboy poetry and music from Wylie and the Wild West.

The Horse Drive offers a slice of the old West, one that is fast disappearing.

“Most days of the year I saddle my horse, and when I can’t do that anymore, it’s time to cross over the great divide,” Warren says. “I will run these horses home until the day I die.”


Photos by Jean Modesette.

For Search and Rescue Operations, These Dogs Lead the Pack!

When she received the phone call, Colette Daigle-Berg felt her heart sink. A 4-year-old girl was missing. She had been abducted from Wolf Point, a community of about 2,850 in Northeast Montana. As members of the volunteer organization Western Montana Search Dogs, Colette and her dog Chapter were being asked to assist in the search for the child.

“She was abducted on a Friday, and we got the call on Saturday night,” recalls Colette, whose team is based in Gallatin County. “We left late Saturday, and arrived on Sunday morning. By then, they had found her shoes, and we were worried that it wouldn’t turn out well.”

A suspect had been arrested on Saturday, and by Sunday morning he finally agreed to direct authorities to a remote cluster of buildings on the outside of town. Working in tandem with Chapter, Colette managed to find the girl, hiding beneath a blanket, alive and well.

“It was so thrilling to find that little girl alive,” Colette says with excitement in her voice. “That was the most amazing experience.”

“Amazing” is a word that can easily be used to describe the abilities of the Search Dogs, whose duties range from finding missing hikers to avalanche victims. As was the case with the girl in Wolf Point, many of the stories have happy endings. In other cases, such as drownings or backcountry suicides, the search teams must take solace in bringing a small measure of closure to grieving families.

“They are extremely valuable to our Search and Rescue efforts,” Park County Sheriff Scott Hamilton says of WMSD. “We have a lot of rugged country, and the dogs are especially good getting through that kind of terrain. There are a lot of situations where I don’t know how we could get it done without them.”

WMSD is an independent, all-volunteer organization dedicated to serving the public. Team members personally purchase their own dogs, dog food, reward toys and other items. Wellness care, vaccines and the majority of vet bills are paid for by members, who also cover travel costs for most of their training events and some searches.

“They’re just dedicated to helping people,” Sheriff Hamilton said.

“We do it to bring joy to families when we find a lost child alive,” says Colette, who also is a member of Park County Search and Rescue. “We do it to bring closure to families who have lost loves ones. We look forward to opportunities to respond.”

To Colette, the real heroes are the dogs, who spend their lives in ongoing training, constantly refining skill sets and learning new ones. The teams hold certifications in disciplines such as Tracking/Trailing, Air-Scent (large area search), Human Remains Detection, Water Recovery (both from the shore and from boats), Avalanche, Evidence Detection, and Building Search. Most teams certify in at least one or two disciplines by age two. They must re-certify in each discipline every two years.

“We continually marvel at the remarkable capacity of our canine partners,” she said. “They are always ready to go to work, and they are absolutely amazing at what they do.”

Donations can be sent to Western Montana Search Dogs, P.O. Box 4505, Bozeman, MT 5977s. For more information on WMSD, please access their website at westernmontanasearchdogs.org or you can visit them on Facebook.

Montana Raptor Conservation Center Helps Majestic Birds Soar Once Again

To Becky Kean, helping raptors is a labor of love—even though the feeling isn’t always mutual.

Are the birds charming and outgoing? Uh, no. Do they have effervescent personalities? Not necessarily.

“They pretty much despise us,” Kean says with a chuckle as she describes the animals that come to the Montana Raptor Conservation Center. “They really don’t want anything to do with us.”

Despite the raptors’ resistance, the staff at the Center helps them anyway, treating as many as 200 injured birds per year from all over the state of Montana. In many cases, the Center plays a critical role in saving the raptors’ lives.

“They have a tremendous will to survive, so they fight us all the way through,” says Dean, who has been Executive Director of the Center since 2008. “They aren’t going to give you many pats on the back.”

Still, as is the case with anyone who has seen raptors either up close or soaring on the horizon, the birds inspire admiration and awe. Says Kean, “You truly realize what amazing creatures they are.”

The Montana Raptor Conservation Center traces its origins back to 1988, when Bozeman veterinarian Dr. Susan Barrows began noticing injured wildlife in the Gallatin Valley and wanted to do something about it. She started an organization called Big Sky Wildcare, which treated animals of all kinds. In 2001, that group evolved into the Montana Raptors Conservation Center, with the focus solely on birds of prey, which include eagles, hawks, falcons and owls.

Kean joined the Center in 2003, when she was a student at Montana State University and a professor happened to mention that the Center needed volunteers. “I didn’t know much about raptors,” she recalls. “I was volunteering once each week and I soon found that going to the center was the highlight of my week. It became a passion for me.”

According to dean, raptors can be injured in a variety of ways. About 40 percent, she says, are hit by cars. Others are hurt by electrical contact. In some cases, birds are hit by gunshots fired by pranksters. Or, they can develop lead poisoning from spent ammunition.

While most injuries have human causes, the Center is dedicated to providing a human solution. The objective is always to return raptors in full health to their natural habitat, a goal that the raptors instinctively seem eager to share.

Says Dean, “I have tremendous respect for these animals and their desire to survive.”