Fighting fire in Alaska: Wright State grad and former wildland firefighter Daniel Hatfield
Wright State alum Daniel Hatfield graduated in 2013 with a degree in criminal justice, but before that he worked in Alaska as a wildland firefighter, delving into the wilderness to control wildfires and keep them from engulfing cabins and spreading into residential areas.
Hatfield, originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, said he got into the business with help from his brother who worked in the same position.
According to Hatfield, there are multiple ways wildfires are started, including lightning and campers neglecting their fires. Even the trees themselves contribute to it.
“The trees up there reproduce by fire,” said Hatfield. “The sap that they excrete contains a kerosene-like accelerant that catches fire and pops off the pine cones kind of like popcorn. That’s how they reseed.”
The job of a wildland firefighter does not always involve putting out the blaze. Sometimes, according to Hatfield, they let the fire burn in order to cleanse the forest and help the environment, but they need to keep it contained to protect Alaskan citizens.
During his time in the field, Hatfield said he would camp out in the wilderness for weeks at a time, waking up at 5 a.m. daily to meet with the crew and establish the day’s objectives. After that, they would travel to the fire site either by hiking a few miles or taking a helicopter.
Once they reach the fire, they set up water pumps in nearby rivers and begin cutting down any vegetation taller than four inches to remove anything that will fuel the fire and to keep it from spreading, including trees.
Hatfield worked on the saw crew as a sawyer, cutting down any trees that were near the fire. Hatfield personally cut down trees reaching heights of 30-40 feet in Alaska and 200-250 feet in California and the surrounding states. Sometimes he even cut them down after they had been ignited.
“One time the fire jumped out of the area of containment and caught another tree on fire. I had to get in there and cut down a 150 foot tree that was engulfed in flames. The pine needles and branches were burning up above me,” said Hatfield.
Dealing with fire requires quick action and doesn’t allow for much downtime. Hatfield said the typical work day lasted around 16 hours, but he stated that he has worked shifts lasting up to 32 hours.
Although it’s a tough job, Hatfield said he enjoyed his time as a wildland firefighter, and built life-long friendships with the other members of his crew.
“It was the best job I’ve ever had. The most physically demanding, the most stressful, but the most rewarding. Being able to save a person’s house is definitely worth it.”