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Hidden heroes: WCCC Wildland Fire Management graduates blaze on

“Congratulations, Kyle,” said the proud grandparents of soon-to-be college graduate Kyle O’Brien during a video phone recording. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, schools across the country have either postponed graduation ceremonies or moved them online. Colorado Mesa University (CMU) and Western Colorado Community College (WCCC) gave students the choice — they could either walk in August or participate in a virtual commencement in May. More than 200 students chose to participate virtually and Wildland Fire Management major O’Brien is one of them.  

O’Brien, and the class of 2020, will join the 42,000 Mavericks who came before them and make the transition from student to alumni, and even though O’Brien’s graduation looks a little different than previous yearsit doesn’t take away from the very real workforce he’s going into.  

Pandemic or not, fire season will come but communities can take comfort in knowing Western Colorado Community College’s Wildland Fire Management program blazes on and produces hidden heroes.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fire seasons are around 80 days longer than they were fifty years ago. In the United States, more than 70,000 communities are at risk from wildfires and nearly 50,000 fires have threatened the nation already this year. In order to combat these disasters, the Wildland Fire Management program at WCCC is teaching and training some of the country’s best wildland firefighters right here in Grand Junction. CMU alumni Ethan Archer was one of them. 

Archer started the Wildland Fire Management program at WCCC when he was just 17 years old. 

“When I finished the initial certification process, I got hired by the fire service as a wildland firefighter the following summer, so with the training I got from my associate degree I was able to go straight to work,” said Archer. 

By working as a wildland firefighter, Archer was able to put himself through college. He received not only an associate degree in Wildland Fire Management from WCCC, but a bachelor’s in environmental science and a minor in biology at Colorado Mesa University. He says working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service for four years as a wildland firefighter is what shaped him. 

“The experience I got is invaluable. Seeing what the environment is like and getting to learn and grow in that fast-paced, high-intensity setting taught me lessons I would’ve never learned otherwise.” 

Archer said firefighting is a team sport, and when they succeed, they do so together. At WCCC he learned teamwork, leadership skills and wildlands training from some of the most qualified, experienced instructors. 

“The program at WCCC is great because it is taught by people who have a vast amount of experience in the field. They know what they’re talking about it and they present the information with fact by experience. The instructors’ skills level definitely contributed to making the transfer from the classroom to the field of operations a smooth one, said Archer.  

Program Director Wildland Fire Management Alison Robb has two bachelor degrees and more than 30 years of experience at the federal level with the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. 

Through Robb’s experiences, students learn how important wildland firefighters are and how meaningful the work can be.

“It’s a job that feels like you’re doing something that matters,” said Archer. “It feels like you’re contributing to something that makes a difference and that’s what I love most about it.”  

In addition to being a rewarding career, this field is in constant need of well-trained professionals.  

“There are jobs waiting for them. There is no shortage of wildland fire positions,” said Robb. “Wildfire in our lifetime is not going away.” 

Archer recently moved to structure fire and is now employed by the Grand Junction Fire Department.  

“I’m very much so the rookie again which is not a bag thing, there’s lots to learn. But I will never forget the time I spent on the wildlands crews and I’ll miss it a lot,” said Archer. 

O’Brien and nine other Wildland Fire Management students are scheduled to graduate in 2020. They’ll follow in Archer’s steps and be the hidden heroes we all need.


Written by Kelsey Coleman