Marymount junior battles Montana wildfires

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When Nathaniel Valenti missed the first day of classes at Marymount University in Arlington this semester, he had a pretty good excuse - He'd been off fighting wildfires in Montana and was on his way back to the East Coast.

The junior criminal justice major from Dover, Del., put in 15-hour shifts in the forests for 14 straight days, enduring 90-degree weather and thick smoke while wearing a helmet, goggles, fire-retardant clothing, heavy boots and carrying a pack. Using an ax with an edge for digging called a Pulaski tool, he often worked at elevations of 6,000 to 7,000 feet.

A fire he helped contain burned an estimated 8,700 acres near Toston, Mont. Another, near Lincoln, has burned 3,000 acres and remains active.

"The first night we were holding the line, and there were trees torching 20 or 30 feet away from me," Valenti said. "That's when the entire tree just goes up in flames, with really high flames and intense heat."

It became a common sight.

The Washington Post reported that more than 8 million acres have burned in U.S. wildfires in 2015 - an area larger than the state of Maryland. California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana have been particularly hard hit.

Valenti was surprised at how quickly fires could reignite.

"We could be watching a burned-out area and walk through it 10 times with nothing happening," he said. "Then, as the humidity dropped in the afternoon, smoke and fire would start popping up everywhere."

The crews slept in tents, often as far as 15 miles away from the fires to avoid the smoke. Each morning, they drove as close as possible before hiking to the fire lines. Valenti's day bag, which had to be worn at all times in the field, weighed about 25 pounds and included a fire shelter in case of an emergency, his food and a gallon and a half of water.

"Once you go out for the day, you can't get water anywhere else," he said. "So in addition to what you carry, you drink a lot in the morning and in the evening."

The temperature - typically in the low 90s by mid-afternoon - was exhausting.

"It was pretty hot in the long shirts and long pants," he said.

To get certified for the temporary federal job, Valenti took a 40-hour firefighting course at West Virginia University in Morgantown last summer. One of the final requirements was to complete a 3-mile hike in 45 minutes with a pack weighing 45 pounds. Valenti, a varsity lacrosse player at Marymount, did it in 38 minutes.

Prior to the course, the 20-year-old had no firefighting experience. He did, however, have a role model. His father, Michael, 54, is the state forester of Delaware and has been fighting western fires most summers since 1998. When an opportunity came up to join a crew out of Maryland, the pair took it: Nathaniel as a rookie firefighter and Michael as boss of the 20-man crew.

"I was very happy the planets aligned so that we could do this together," the elder Valenti said.

To avoid the appearance of favoritism, he admitted that his son may have been given more than the typical amount of extra rookie tasks, such as carrying tools.

While new to firefighting, Nathaniel has plenty of experience in the outdoors, having gone on 14-day backpacking and canoe trips as a Boy Scout. In fact, Valenti, his three brothers and father are all Eagle Scouts.

Michael called this year "extraordinarily bad in terms of fire," adding that lightning strikes in dry weather caused fires throughout August. On a federal scale of one to five, the need for firefighters has been at five since mid-August. States actively recruit volunteers, and he urged anyone interested in going next year to visit their state's department of forestry for more information.

"Growing up on the East Coast I never really understood the impact these fires can have on communities and towns - even entire states," Valenti said. "I was glad to be able to go out there and make a difference. Whenever we had a reason to be in towns, people would come out and thank us. Hopefully, I'll be able to do it again next year."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015