|Black Hills State University students Kyle Hauck, far left, a science education major from Hot Springs, and Natalie Geise, far right, English education major from Fort Collins, Colo., have spent the past several summers battling blazes around the country as wildland firefighters.
| Kyle Hauk, far back, and Natalie Geise, front right, are pictured with other members of the wildland firefighter crew.
| Natalie Geise and Kyle Hauck both worked on the Whoop Up fire in Wyoming during the summer 2012.
Thousands of wildfires ignite around the United States every year burning hundreds of acres of land, homes and in some instances taking lives. Fighting those fires is a dangerous job, but one that Black Hills State University students Natalie Geise and Kyle Hauck have been doing for three years. Geise, English education major from Fort Collins, Colo., and Hauck, science education major from Hot Springs, devote their summers to battling blazes from the Black Hills to Idaho.
Geise and Hauck, both wildland firefighters, have fought nearly 50 fires over the past three years. Some major wildfires Geise and Hauck have helped put out were the High Park Fire and Wild Rose Fire in Colorado, the Elk Complex Fire in Idaho, and the Whoop Up in Wyoming. They also fight many fires around Western South Dakota on a day-to-day basis.
“I have always enjoyed backpacking, but didn’t have any firefighting background when I started,” said Geise, “I definitely get an adrenaline rush when I am putting out fires; I like to take risks and am a hard worker.”
The two get into their summer routine by doing undergraduate pilot training (UPT) every morning, so that they are ready to go whenever a fire comes. UPT training is a physical fitness test that is used in the military.
Geise and Hauck are wildland firefighters on a type two initial attack (IA) hand crew, which means they hike to the fire with their backpacks and whatever else is necessary to put out that fire. Geise digs hand line as a fire stopper many times digging for hours at a time until ending up with what looks like a trench. Hauck has been on the saw team for the past three years. He has worked as both a sawyer, where he uses a chainsaw to create a path for the crew, and a swamper, where he carries out trees and brush that the sawyer cuts down.
“It is hard work, but it is great having a job that keeps me in great shape,” Hauck said.
There are 10 people on Geise and Hauck’s crew including them. When the Spearfish crew goes to bigger national fires in Idaho or Colorado, they team up with another 10-person crew that is close by so that they meet national standards.
“It always depends on the fire activity and what the foliage looks like to see whether we partner up with another 10-person crew,” Hauck said.
When Hauck and Geise went to the High Park Fire in Colorado last year, Geise was the only girl in her crew with 15 guys.
“One of the hardest parts of being the only girl on my crew is living, eating, and sleeping in a field with a bunch of grubby lumberjack-like men for three months,” Geise said noting that they have also become her family. “I love the crew atmosphere and the family that we have become; these guys are like brothers to me.”
The two have fought fires around the country and many times, depending on the size of the fire, are gone for weeks at a time.
“One of the best parts of this job is the traveling. I have seen some places that I would have never gotten to see if it weren’t for this,” Hauck said. “I love the people on my crew, I love fighting fire, but I do miss my family.”
Hauck was gone to 12 fires this past summer and more than 30 last year.
“In August of 2012 our crew had to respond to 10 fires in 10 days; that was a lot,” he said.
Fire crews are always on two-hour callbacks, so even when they aren’t at work, they are on call.
“I will be at home relaxing, thinking that the day is over, and boom there is a fire and you have to be ready to go,” Geise said noting they all have ‘red bags’ on their trucks with supplies for up to two weeks.
Hauck, who plans on graduating in May 2015, will not be firefighting this summer in order to spend time with his family. However, Geise, who graduates in December, plans to spend another summer battling wildfires.