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Holding the Line: AmeriCorps NCCC Responds to Waldo Canyon Fire

by Tess Hetzel

Stephen Packard, 24, could have taken his degree in Economics from the University of Connecticut and found a comfortable desk job. Instead, he opted for a more adventurous path when he joined AmeriCorps NCCC. Never did he imagine he'd one day be working on the front lines of Colorado's biggest wildfire in history, sleeping just feet from the flames.

Now in his second year with NCCC, Packard is a Team Leader for Fire 4, one of several specialized fire management teams based out NCCC's Denver campus. Members on these teams participate in a rigorous six-week training program in order to receive their Wild Land Red Card certification.

AmeriCorps NCCC was an obvious choice for Packard. “I feel like I'm in love when I am outdoors. I love that my office is a giant window with a view of the Rocky Mountains. “AmeriCorps NCCC was a perfect fit for something I really wanted to do.”

On the Front Lines

Working under the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, Team Fire 4 was one of the first to deploy to the scene. In their first days on the fire, the six team members worked around the clock, catching just a few hours of sleep each night. Not at easy feat when camping in backyards and sleeping in shifts.

The team focused on structure protection, doing their best to ensure homes would not get engulfed in flames. Members removed wood piles, dug line, cleared Scrub Oak, and put out spot fires. With flames in sight and the air thick with smoke, Packard reported that the team was running on pure adrenaline, always waiting for their next call.

Fire 4 was particularly motivated when asked to work on the home of a fellow volunteer firefighter. “A home is more than just a generic structure to protect,” said Packard. “It is a sacred place, full of memories and personal belongings.”

A Hero's Welcome

By Wednesday, professional fire crews from around the country began to arrive and Fire 4 had its first opportunity to take a break. As the team returned to town, they were reminded of the magnitude of what they were doing. Local residents had placed homemade signs in yards and along fences, thanking the crews and cheering them on.

“It is a community effort, working hand-in-hand with first local responders to plan the best course of action to prevent the fire from spreading,” said Packard, “It's such a great feeling when you talk someone whose house you saved, especially when it's someone you know. All those blood, sweat, and tears are worth it when you see the joy in a homeowner's eyes as they thank you for your work.”

Packard will graduate from the AmeriCorps NCCC program in July and hopes to continue his service by pursuing a career in wildland firefighting.

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