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By Echo Menges
Javi Gil, 45, of rural Rutledge, Missouri, has recently returned from a season of wildland firefighting with a much deeper appreciation for his life in Rural America, and amazing and tragic stories of his adventures during a most unusual life-changing year.
Gil, known mainly to locals as the Firechief of the Rutledge Volunteer Fire Department, is also a husband and the father of two children. He and his family are members of the cooperative community Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, which is located approximately 1.25 miles northwest of Rutledge and nine miles southeast of Memphis – as the crow flies.
A veteran firefighter of eight years, Gil has spent the last four years wildland firefighting through the nation’s fire seasons. The firefighter began the 2020 fireseason about two months early to aid in the effort to bring fires across the western section of the country under control.
“I left on July 24th,” said Gil. “This is almost two months earlier than average. It was because there were less firefighters because of COVID, and last year was very mild and rainy. The season was very short. If you combine all the growth in the forest, all the available fuels, plus the weather – it made this season basically the worst ever. It was unusually dry, very windy and there was a lot of fuel. The whole West Coast was on fire all at the same time from Southern California to Washington State.”
Privately contracted to firefight mainly in the State of Washington, Gil covered more ground than he has in past seasons while being under tight restrictions due to the pandemic.
Throughout the 2020 Fireseason, Gil was part of a three-person crew and he was sent from fire to fire. As each fire they worked on was brought under control, the team would be challenged with a new assignment.
For Gil, the season began at the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington State, the northern edge of which is approximately 40 miles south of the Canadian border. He spent about ten days fighting the roughly 10,000-acre fire before being sent approximately 90 miles southeast to Cheney, WA, to a fire that burned about 5,000 acres.
His longest trip to fight a fire was his third destination, which took Gil and his crew nearly 700 miles into rural Montana and then to the Crow Reservation in Busby, MT.
“We were there for another ten days. This is the one that was 70,000 acres and there were only 29 of us fighting that fire. This was a Type I fire, and there were only 29 people fighting. Help never arrived – just because everybody was already engaged in fires around the nation. We were there for a week. From that fire, we went back to Washington. That was the time the whole West Coast had a really bad thunderstorm and really bad wind. The winds were very high with low humidity.
“We usually stay from when we get called until the fire is almost out. That is when we become available and they take us. We went back to a fire in Cheney, same town (as before), and this fire was 121,000 acres. This one was probably around 600 firefighters. I think there were firefighters from Canada, too. We were there until September 18th.
“From there, we were sent to Oregon, a town called Springfield. We went to a fire called the Holiday Fire. There, we worked for 21 days.
Gil and his team spent their days fighting fires with a mix of water, which was limited, earth and fire. They hiked or drove to the firelines to douse flames, “dry mop” by mixing dirt with embers to prevent them from reigniting, or backburn.
They spent their nights at makeshift campsites most often on school grounds. Because of the pandemic, firefighters were fenced in to be separated from the public, screened for symptoms upon exiting and entering and they were required to wear masks, social distance and keep to their own crew.
“Last year it was a big camp. You had 1,000 people sharing meals and eating together. You’d go from one crew to another. (This year) we followed protocol. For example, in camp, everywhere you go you have to wear a mask. If anyone in your engine got COVID, the whole crew would be sent home for two weeks. Everyone was careful because they want to work. It was like being in a family unit. You get
your food at specific times and eat with your unit. Anytime you venture outside with other units, you wear masks.”
Units sometimes camped near the firelines. They were required to carry enough supplies to be completely self-sufficient for a period of three days.
From the Holiday Fire in Oregon, Gil made a brief return to Missouri.
“I went back home because I thought the season was over. I went back home on October 15th. I took a plane back out on October 18th. I went to Prescott, Arizona. That’s the town where nineteen firefighters were killed in 2013. We went to the same town. That’s where the fire was. For us, it was a weird feeling to be in a place where that many firefighters died at once. This fire was 9,000 acres.
Gil estimates ten percent of the firefighters he saw this season were women, a much higher amount than past seasons. He also pointed out this year the nation had an overall shortage of wildland firefighters due to the pandemic.
He also highlighted inmates for their hard work on the firelines.
“To add, inmates in California do all of this work for years, and when they are back into society they cannot get a job as a firefighter. We worked with crews from correctional facilities, and they are the hardest working crews you’ve ever seen. They do all the work a Hotshot Crew would do, and they get paid like $4 a day. We’re all firefighters and we all deserve the same respect.
“We also had (inmate) crews that would cook for us. They go from fire to fire and cook. They made the most amazing meals we’ve ever had – super elaborate meals. If they get good ratings they keep coming back. That’s one of the most amazing things – the inmates. There was a big crew from Washington. Just by chance they went to the same fires as us. Some of them were going to be released the following year, and they were all asking for jobs.
Gil said it was hard to be away from his wife and children during the season, and he communicated with them electronically every day he was away keeping in-touch over the phone or via video calls.
He was glad to arrive at home, after the actual end of the season, on October 26.
“Something I’m taking from the fires is don’t take anything for granted. I’ve seen families lose absolutely everything. I’ve seen three towns where 600 houses were lost. For 21 days I rode through towns where the only thing you could see is the mailbox. You knew there was once a house there. I feel privileged to have a house. My biggest take away was don’t take anything for granted, live life to the fullest and be compassionate with other people, and also – help each other. You know, you don’t know what other people are going through,” said Gil. “I think this year will be a year of reflection. I’ve seen things that people should not see. My life changed.”
Gil recommends paying it forward to firefighters near and far by offering simple words of thanks and support.
“I would say the thing firefighters value the most are words of encouragement. A simple thank you. That’s what we need,” said Gil.
Gil and his wife Christina farm and raise livestock with their two children and community cooperative. They are looking forward to a quiet winter together in Rural Northeast Missouri.