Mikkey grew up in the Neffs area and took his first snowboarding lesson around age 8 with Joe Forte. He “caught on right away,” and started instructing at Blue Mountain Learning Center around 2010, when he was 14 years old. A couple of years later, he had a clipboard thrust upon him and was one of the youngest hill captain at 16, when Blue still did stations.
When Mikkey was 14, he also joined a local volunteer firefighter group, and by 16 he was actively training and taking classes to pursue this career. While attending Parkland High School, his spare time was filled with classes on pumps, chain saws, fire behavior, using fire to stop fire, and other relevant topics. He graduated in 2015, and then spent a year or so in a “hang crew,” which is a rung lower than the “hot shot” crew in the hierarchy of fire fighting. During that time, he fought fires in Delaware, California, Texas, and Montana. In April, he relocated to South Dakota, where at 19 he is the youngest in his group battling some of the fires out west that have been in the news daily.
Mikkey’s job includes making a “hard line,” which is chopping and clearing wood and underbrush while a fire is raging nearby. He and his team members each carry 45 pounds during their 16 hour shifts and use Pulaski axes, which are special tools used in wild land firefighting. They have axes on one end and adzes (kind of like hoes) on the other, so they can be used to both chop wood and underbrush and rake it out of the way. The team cuts and clears a firebreak of several feet with the hope that the lack of burning material will prevent a fire from spreading.
The uniform includes a helmet, a fire resistant shirt, pants, and boots. They hike into areas too isolated to bring water to fight the fires and may cover 25 miles or so in a day. They stay in the field for weeks at a time, eating military MRE’s (meals ready to eat) and rarely having a chance to bathe or change clothes. This is not recreational camping! Included in their packs are fire shelters, which are two layers of foil with nomex, a fire-retardant material, in between. These devices increase a firefighter’s chance of surviving a fire to about 50%. These are used once and then thrown away. Fortunately, Mikkey has not had to unpack his yet.
Understandably, Mikkey’s parents “hate” his job, since it puts their son in so much danger, and he is one of the few if not the only teen I know who has written his will. Mikkey understated the temperature in the field as “it’s hot” and also said that you should “do what you want to do when you’re young.” Good luck to you, Mikkey, and thank you for your service helping keep the country safe from fires!
Sheri Miltenberger, June 2016
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p.s. When asked if there was anything his team needed to help them in their pursuits, Mikkey immediately answered, “socks,”and then added “books.” I run the book room at my church’s bazaar in November and will be pulling some novels to send. If anyone would like to add anything to the care package, there will be an opportunity to do so this winter.
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