ALMA — It’s very common for students at Alma College to spend time engaged in service learning opportunities — direct, hands-on experiences designed to meet the needs of our local, national, and global community.
J.P. McDonald, a senior nursing major from Jackson, really took the “direct, hands-on” part of that to heart this past summer. On a whim, he applied and was accepted to join the Color Country Interagency Fire Center, in southwest Utah, where he fought fires in an area often plagued by its hot and dry climate.
“We have a family friend who is a fire engine captain in St. George, Utah, near the Arizona border,” said McDonald, of how he came to be aware of the job. “I was planning a camping trip out west, and called him to ask about cool places to visit while I was out there. He told me I should think about applying for this.
“I didn’t have experience doing anything like it, but I thought it would give me a lot of satisfaction if I could pull it off. I wanted to prove something to myself.”
Color Country, McDonald explained, is an affiliate of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture and the state of Utah. In the summer, they typically employ a number of seasonal workers to deal with wildfires that are commonplace in southwest Utah, due to the area’s hot and dry climate. According to the state’s website, in 2018, there were 1,327 wildfires in Utah with estimated damages of $13.4 million. According to McDonald, many of the seasonal workers are trained on the job, as he was.
While with Color Country, McDonald received a crash course in firefighting. The team most frequently employed a “mobile attack” strategy, where one firefighter drives an engine while other firefighters walk alongside, putting out a fire with hoses. This allows firefighters to better control “hot spots,” which are areas that re-ignite after being extinguished. Oftentimes, McDonald said, he and his fellow firefighters would dig trenches and scrape out dirt to throw on a fire, which helps extinguish it even more effectively than water.
McDonald also witnessed firefighters taking samples of trees and grass, which were then evaluated to determine the level of moisture in a given area. Thankfully, he said, the summer of 2021 was relatively normal, in terms of precipitation, for an area that has been dealing with drier than normal conditions in recent years.
The job was physically arduous, McDonald said. He sometimes worked 12- to-16-hour days, carrying heavy equipment, while wearing protective clothing in extremely hot weather. However, he found comfort in the camaraderie of his fellow firefighters, many of whom he has stayed connected with since coming back to Michigan.
Being out west also offered opportunities to get close to nature in different ways than McDonald was accustomed to in Michigan.
“My favorite experience was flying in a helicopter to get to a fire and spending the night there, just by ourselves, on this mesa,” McDonald said. “We slept outside, in sleeping bags, under the stars. It was completely serene, because nobody can really get to this area on foot, and the view of the sky was unforgettable.”
McDonald said he is happy to be back at Alma College, where he studies nursing. He said the program’s small class sizes allows for bonding opportunities with fellow students, and he receives a lot of one-on-one attention from professors. Upon graduation, McDonald plans on taking the necessary tests to get his nursing license. However, he admits that his short time fighting wildfires gave him a new, “burning” passion.
“I’d like to spend, at minimum, the next five years going out there every summer,” McDonald said. “There is nothing like it. The way I was hoping to feel at the start of the summer — it definitely gave me that sense of deep satisfaction I was looking for.”