As the “Most Outdoorsy School in the Nation,” SUU produces many graduates who go on to work for national parks, the Bureau of Land Management or, like alumna Jamie Smith, the Forest Service. Her proper title may be “Forestry Aid,” but most would consider her a wildlife firefighter.
Smith graduated in May of 2018 with a Bachelors of Science in biology. Though, most might recognize her from her time spent as a top point guard for the SUU women’s basketball team two years in a row.
Smith was originally studying to be a teacher but her mind changed on a camping trip with her family, a favorite of hers while growing up. While sitting around the fire with several relatives, her uncle suggested her love of the outdoors would best fit working for the Forest service.
“I had never even thought that working in the outdoors was a possibility,” Smith said. “Once I got back to school the following week, I set up an appointment with my academic advisor and changed my major.”
Though it was risky to change majors right before senior year, Smith’s confidence was strengthened when she met her future boss at the SUU career fair that fall. The following spring Smith began her training to become a firefighter.
Growing up in a family who loves to camp and hike, Smith feels right at home in a job that takes her to any forest in Utah, Arizona, Idaho or Montana. This past summer, she and her crew served in several different parks.
“I remember one time I thought, ‘wow, I’m literally at the edge of Rainbow Point and I’m fighting fires. It doesn’t get better than this.’”
One of Smith’s favorite places she’s visited for her job was the Granite Mountain hotshot memorial. The 19 crosses commemorate a team of firefighters who died in the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. The now clear surrounding land gave Smith a new perspective on what she does for a living.
“I hadn’t fought any fires at that point yet,” she remembered. “I respect those men a lot more now but that memorial is a good reminder to the dangers this job can be.”
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, over the last decade the average fatality rate is 16 firefighters per year. This statistic is a constant reminder to Smith’s crew to “keep up their LECS,” an acronym for their safety motto: Lookout, communication, escape routes and safety zones.
Sometimes accidents do happen. On one visit while back burning, a common way to contain a wildfire by controlled burning of a nearby area, Smith fell into some burning sagebrush.
“There was just fire all around,” Smith said. “My instincts kicked in and I had to crawl out.”
However, the most common cause of yearly firefighter deaths is vehicle accidents and not fire itself. According to Smith, the dangers of the job are important to remember but are also one of many misconceptions of wildlife firefighters.
“It’s different than you think,” she said. “[Structure fires] are what other people see but that’s not how wildfires work.”
Unlike the traditional structure firefighter, Smith and her team do not need to wear oxygen tanks and full fireproof suits. Instead, their uniforms are much lighter to accommodate how much hiking they do each day. Her team also hardly uses water as a form of containment. Instead they back burn, dig lines or use mud to squander the flames.
Another misconception of firefighters, which Smith proudly rebukes, is that it is a man’s profession. Though she is one of only two women in a team of 15, she doesn’t let that stop her from doing her job.
“I can’t say it’s not hard,” Smith remarked. “There are obviously physical limitations to being a woman. You can’t let that hinder you. You have got to work just as hard and show you can do it.”
As a firefighter, she is required to complete an hour of personal training a day, something Smith was very used to as a basketball player. The physical demands for firefighters has made Smith appreciative of her time at SUU.
“Being an athlete really helped me. It taught me how to push through hard days.”
Her competitive nature on the court has also benefited Smith’s work ethic.
“You have to compare yourself to others,” she admitted. “You want to be the best you can so if you get in a situation where you need to be in physical shape, you can keep up with the people around you… That’s your life on the line.”
Like any job, there are good days and bad days, but as Smith falls asleep under the stars, she’s most content knowing she loves what she does.
“It gives me incredible purpose. I feel like I’m doing something that really matters.”
Story By: Ansleigh Mikesell
Photos Provided By: Jamie Smith