Interview with a firefighter

Pacific Southwest Region firefighters were dispatched to the  2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego, the largest fire in California history, damaging more than 230,000 acres. Public affairs assistant Rebecca Fabbri reached out to regional fire management coordinator Lee Rickard recently to discuss his experiences with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Credit: Cal Fire

A conversation with fire management coordinator Lee Rickard, a 30-year veteran of fighting fires

By Rebecca Fabbri
November 21, 2017

The 2017 fire season was significant throughout the entire Pacific Southwest Region (California, Nevada, Klamath Basin) of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public affair assistant Rebecca Fabbri reached out to regional fire management coordinator Lee Rickard recently to discuss his experiences out in the field. Rickard has been with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for seven years and involved in firefighting for 30 years.

Fabbri: Did you always aspire to be a firefighter?

Rickard: I always had an interest in general business, maybe even pre-law. I had no idea wildland fire existed. Originally I was going to school at the University of Mississippi. Then my dad moved from Texas to New Mexico, so I went out there to take a break from college and learn more about his real-estate business. I then met a guy who offered me a summer job. I asked, ‘What do I have to do?’ and he said, ‘You fight fires, but you can ski all winter long.’ I accepted the offer and joined the Smokey Bear Hotshots, a Type 1 fire crew, in 1988. From that point on, I never looked back and kept fighting fires.

"With this job, there are no summer vacations; that’s the commitment and sacrifice you make, but I still love being a firefighter," says Lee Rickard, shown here being interviewed in Oregon on the Miller Complex Fire. Credit: USFWS

Fabbri: How was this past fire season?

Rickard: In the fire world you get immune to hearing, ‘It’s going to be the worst fire season ever.’ However, in the western United States it was incredibly severe. We had more people committed this season than any other time in the history of wildland fire at once— 42 Incident Management Teams in total. Northern California has been relatively busy over the years, but this season was unique because we had a really good winter. The growth of everything was so vigorous. All the plants were reaching for the sun during the spring and growing hearty. Then the rain stopped, and the landscape dried out pretty quick. We went from a really wet situation to a hot oven right out of the gate. While this year was incredibly challenging and stressful for the region, families included, big pat on the back to everyone involved; there were no fatalities or major injuries.

Fabbri: What were your main concerns while on duty?

Rickard: The main concerns were hazardous trees and the hot embers around people’s homes. When you drive on the highway through Santa Rosa, you don’t realize how many homes are nestled in those canyons. All the trees along these roads were completely charred and the vegetation that held those trees in place is now compromised. Erosion is going to be a huge problem when the rain comes since all that’s remaining is ash, which also makes them more prone to mudslides.

Fabbri: How do you avoid accidents in the field?

Rickard: Driving is one of our biggest killers. Falling trees play a factor with that, which is why we go out there and make sure they’re all down before lifting evacuations. Another one is managing fatigue — making sure we give people a ‘take care of yourself’ day. We’re more safety conscious now in the fire business.

Fabbri: How do you remain optimistic within a field that encounters a lot of loss and destruction?

Rickard: It’s gratifying to know that you’ve contributed to the outcome that’s really good in many ways and could have been a lot worse in other ways. Being able to execute my plan successfully and prevent a fire from reaching the public is pleasing to me. Personally, from my limited 30 years in this business, we’ve been too good at our jobs of putting fires out to the point where it has put us in a position where we have an unhealthy landscape. Fire needs to play its natural role. On the more positive end, when fires happen, landscapes get some treatment. Some species thrive in the aftermath of fires and the animals will come back, get some fresh vegetation, and new plants will grow. I think that’s the part that makes you feel good, knowing that you’ve contributed to something much bigger than yourself and you were successful.

Fabbri: What do you love about being a wildland firefighter?

Rickard: First and foremost, the people make my job worthwhile. The personalities and the comradery is a large part of it. I work with a great team. I also think it’s crazy that I’m getting paid to experience these beautiful places that not many people would be able to see. With this job, there are no summer vacations; that’s the commitment and sacrifice you make, but I still love being a firefighter.


Story Photo

Rebecca Fabbri

About the writer...

Rebecca Fabbri is a public affairs assistant for the Pacific Southwest Region’s external affairs office located in Sacramento, California. A UC Davis graduate, she enjoys spending time with her friends and riding her horse. Popular on Instagram, Rebecca's followers include Paris Hilton.

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