Rookie wild land firefighter proves she’s capable
Andrea Nichols, of Grove, is a rangeland management specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Eastern Oklahoma Region. She recently joined a BIA wild land firefighter crew to help put out a forest fire in Colorado. COURTESY
Bureau of Indian Affairs wild land firefighter Andrea Nichols helps put out a flare-up after a forest fire in the Roosevelt National Forest in Colorado. COURTESY
Wild land firefighters for the Bureau of Indian Affairs walk in a line to their next assignment in Colorado. COURTESY
GROVE – Rookie wild land firefighter Andrea Nichols was on her own on a fire line in a Colorado forest putting out flare-ups when flames rose from the ground and began burning Aspen trees and threatening an unburned area.
Just a few weeks before she was taking online wildfire management courses and earning her red card, which certified her to fight forest fires. Now as the flames spread she was alone with only a small water hose to fight them.
Nichols, 30, of Grove is a rangeland management specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Eastern Oklahoma Region in Miami, Oklahoma. She inspects agriculture and range leases for tribes from the Kansas line to the Texas line in Oklahoma and west to the state’s center. Once a lease is in place she ensures the land is taken care of and the lessee is not overstocking livestock or overplanting.
“I just maintain a presence out there so the lessees and landowners know I’m doing my job…making sure things are OK,” she said.
She has a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science and a master’s degree in horticulture, both from Oklahoma State University.
While she was in her master’s program she was part of program called “Pathways” and interning at the Pawnee Agency in Pawnee. When she graduated she transitioned to the BIA’s Eastern Oklahoma Region.
“As soon as I got there, there was a man named Forrest Blackbear who is the head honcho for fire in that region, and he was like, ‘hey, do you want to do fire?’ And I said no because I’m actually scared of fire. I’m actually scared of my oven,” she said.
But after talking to friends about being a part of the fire management team, she accepted Blackbear’s offer.
“I kind of wanted to go from the get go because I want to serve a higher purpose almost all of the time,” Nichols said.
She took online wildfire management courses this summer while watching fires erupt in the western United States. She passed her courses and her pack test, which involved carrying a 45-pound backpack while walking 3 miles within 45 minutes. She said as soon as she earned her red card she was tasked to help fight a Colorado fire.
“I got my red card, they geared me up,” she said. “That was on a Friday, and I shopped with my mom for about everything I could think of that I would need to take because I had no idea. And you have to prepare for camping. By Monday (Sept. 21) I was on the road on my way to Colorado.”
She was nervous as she traveled to the fire but also excited. “I love being outside. I kind of made a career out of getting to play outside. I know those mountains pretty well. We’ve got family in Colorado, and we go to Colorado pretty often.”
She joined a 20-member crew, which included one other female. She said her crew didn’t mingle with other crews because of COVID-19, and the firefighters’ camps in the Red Feather Lakes area were separated. Also, there were five firefighting areas with the Oklahoma crew assigned to Division Romeo in Roosevelt National Park.
“There’s hiking and there’s wild land firefighter hiking,” Nichols said. “I wasn’t in the shape I needed to be in. I had no idea what kind of shape I needed to be in. So we have to lay waterlines out, and we had to hike those up this mountain with all of our other gear, and we carried as many hoses as we could take. That was probably the hardest, physically, but it was fun because your office is gorgeous for two weeks.”
She also had a crash course in wild land firefighting acronyms, which she learned from her crew’s experienced members. The moment came for her to test her training when she was doing “mop up” duty in “the black” where a fire had already burned through the forest.
“There’s still going to be heat in that area,” Nichols said. “Your job is to go in and try to remove as much heat as you can and put out any flare-ups. So we were in the same place for a couple of days because it kept wanting to smoke up, and we had a dust layer that was 10 to 12 inches thick that was full of ground organic litter that wanted to keep smoking.”
The crew spread out on a fire line to put out any flare-ups with lateral water lines that were attached to larger trunk line. She said didn’t have a water line in one area that had been flaring up, so her crew boss went to search for a lateral line.
“I was pulling a lateral line up and down my fire line putting stuff out, and this one spot just decided to kick up fast, or it seemed fast to me, and I was like, ‘oh no.’ It was right on the edge between the green and the black, and the green is of course the stuff you don’t want to burn,” she said.
Her main hose had two puncture holes, which she patched with ribbon, and she hooked up a second hose for backup. When she got back to the fire it had spread to two larger Aspen trees and was spreading to downed trees.
“So I go back in there and fight this fire all on my own, and I don’t have a radio. My squad boss, who had just come to check on me, he was all the way at the other end of the line. The other two people who were closest to me they were too far and they couldn’t hear me hollering at them. So I thought, ‘I guess it’s just me fighting this fire today,’ but I got it. I got it taken care of because they had made sure I knew enough to handle something like that, but it was kind of scary for me because I was by myself.”
Nichols said the work was tough and sometimes dangerous, but she would volunteer again. “Absolutely, it’s kind of a calling to something that’s bigger than me. I care a lot about nature. Fire is good. Fire is healthy, but fire can be very dangerous and very devastating. It was hard. I was dirty. I was exhausted, but I knew I was there for a reason. We were doing good work. I was blessed with the willpower and the body to get myself up there and do something.”