Sometimes the Philmont belt buckle makes it obvious. Other times, Mike Huneke casually brings up Scouting in conversation only to hear someone say, “I’m an Eagle Scout, too.”
No matter how it happens, it pretty much always happens: Huneke discovers that at least one member of his wildland firefighting crew has a Scouting background.
“I frequently encounter Scouters and Scouting alumni in fire camps and on the firelines across the country,” he says. “The Scouting program develops skills in youth that are uniquely suited to developing wildland firefighters — skills like orienteering, hiking, first aid, camping, emergency preparedness, outdoor ethics, leadership and self-reliance.”
Huneke, a Distinguished Eagle Scout, is the deputy chief of staff for fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service. He’s part of the team that works to prevent and suppress fires on the Forest Service’s 193 million acres of land.
And with fires raging across the West this year, this has been one of Huneke’s busiest years yet.
When we first talked, Huneke had just arrived at his hotel in Wyoming to fight the Mullen Fire, which continues to burn in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado.
For this fire, burning in the Medicine Bow National Forest, Huneke served as a division supervisor, meaning he directed and implemented suppression activities across a 12-mile section of the fire’s perimeter.
“Division supervisors work on the fire line, supervising the firefighting resources assigned to the division and ensuring their safety, welfare and productivity,” Huneke says. “I think it’s one of the most challenging and rewarding positions on the fire.”
16-hour days for 14 days
Huneke’s deployment to the Mullen Fire lasted 14 days — not including travel time from his home base in Washington, D.C., to the fire near Laramie, Wyo.
Each day started before 6 a.m. and ended after 9 p.m. — 16-hour shifts that resulted in some “cumulative fatigue,” Huneke says.
The days began with an operations briefing where Huneke and the other division supervisors compared notes, shared the radio frequencies for the day and, when necessary, bartered with each other for equipment. (Which crew needs the bulldozer today?)
“You have to coordinate with everything else going on in the entire fire, because there’s limited resources,” Huneke says.
At an elevation over 8,000 feet, overnight temperatures got as low as 14 degrees, so Huneke’s team also had to check pumps and hoses to make sure they hadn’t frozen overnight. Yes, even amid the heat of a massive wildfire, things can freeze.
Safety, welfare, wildfires
After briefing his team of 60 firefighters, the day’s work began. Huneke saw his primary role as ensuring the safety of his team. After that, he made sure the crew was well fed, hydrated and had a comfortable place to spend each night — however short those nights might have been.
Only after both safety and welfare were taken care of did Huneke start thinking about fighting the fire.
He tells me there are two ways to battle a blaze like this.
You can try a direct attack, working right on the perimeter of the fire and fighting flames head on.
Or you can use the approach Huneke’s team used for the Mullen Fire: an indirect attack. For this method, firefighters position themselves several days ahead of the fire’s expected path and identify a place to stop it. They might set up along a road or river or rock wall — some natural or man-made break that creates a barrier where they can make their stand.
This tactic gave Huneke and his team time to prepare their attack. When they were ready, the team intentionally started a blaze on the fire side of the line, directing the flames toward the encroaching fire. When these two fires met, the intersecting blazes used up the available fuel and extinguished one another.
“It’s much more complicated than putting water on it,” Huneke says.
When his two-week stint was over, Huneke and his team had successfully contained 8 miles of the 12-mile perimeter assigned to Alpha Division. The other 4 miles were prepped and ready for the next team.
Service to Scouting
Huneke’s other job is as Scoutmaster of Troop 124, a 100-Scout troop in Carney, Md., part of the Baltimore Area Council.
That’s the troop where Huneke himself became an Eagle Scout as a young man.
“Being Scoutmaster of the troop I was a member of as a youth, as my son developed into an Eagle Scout, has been the most rewarding position I have ever held,” he says.
Like so many Scouting volunteers, Huneke serves in more than one role. He’s a subject matter expert and writer for the BSA’s National Conservation Committee, a council board member, and was director of the conservation program for the 2013 National Jamboree, 2017 National Jamboree and 2019 World Scout Jamboree.
Huneke carves out time for Scouting because he’s seen how the program led him to appreciate the outdoors and pursue a career in forestry. He remembers the “amazing, life-changing experiences.” He recalls connecting with nature during a magical trek through Philmont Scout Ranch in 1988 — an occasion made even more special because he was there during the ranch’s 50th anniversary.
Huneke says he’d love to see the BSA add a merit badge for wildland fire management, and he’s even written some proposed requirements for such a badge.
He says there’s a lot more science that goes into fighting a wildfire than people might think. And the techniques used to battle a structural blaze like a house or apartment fire are completely different from those his team uses in a forest.
Wildland firefighters don’t just consider whether an area is burning but the severity of the burn. A wildfire traveling downhill, for example, will leave less of an impact than one traveling uphill because the latter kind of fire will have to consume more fuel as it travels.
“We want to put the fire out in a way that causes the least amount of harm to the environment — not just the easiest way,” he says. “Little things like that are all about preserving the resource and the soils and the watershed.”
Curious about how firefighters and their support teams get organized to battle wildfires? Open the October 2020 issue of Boys’ Life for a fascinating story about the coordinated effort to keep us safe and protect our lands.
Thanks to Andrew Miller for the tip.