For almost as long as he can remember, Michael Kronick has wanted to fight fires in the Western United States. Ever since he was a school-aged child during the Reagan Administration, he pictured himself battling wildfires.
“I think a lot of guys my age, their first exposure to it was during the Yellowstone fires of 1988, when it was on the news constantly,” Kronick said. “It left a very big impression on me, and when I became a career firefighter, it afforded me the opportunity to do it.”
Kronick, a Trumbull resident, is the deputy chief of the Westport Fire Department. He also has volunteered with the Long Hill Fire Department, in addition to spending two weeks each year since 2002 fighting western wildfires. Kronick and a team of about two dozen firefighters from New England, recently spent two weeks in Colorado fighting the Buttermilk Fire, which burned 739 acres near Black Canyon National Park, and the smaller Green Mountain Fire.
Fighting a wildfire of that size is much different than a typical Connecticut 911 call, where the building or outdoor fire is normally extinguished relatively quickly. First, these Western fires are much larger.
“I’ve been assigned to fires where when we get there, it’s already been burning for a week, we spend two weeks fighting it, and after we leave it burns for another month,” he said.
Also, these wildfires can occur in remote areas where water and other support is scarce.
“The Buttermilk Fire was about a 90-minute drive from town, the last hour of which was over a dirt road where you needed a four-wheel drive truck, so it’s a wilderness.”
But if the fires are so remote, why bother fighting them at all? Ironically, Kronick said the number of wildfires currently burning out west makes it more urgent to get smaller fires out as quickly as possible.
“Normally, with a remote fire like that where it starts with a lightning strike, they would just kind of shepherd the fire, just manage it and let it burn,” he said. “But at the national level firefighters are stretched so thin the concern is we wouldn’t be able to keep it contained, and it would get out of control.”
Another difference in fighting wildfires is the lack of water. Helicopters can drop water, and planes spread fire retardant, but most of the work is done by men with axes and shovels.
“It’s a lot of hand word, removing trees, cut off its fuel supply,” Kronick said. “In some ways it’s like playing chess, methodically work to box it in.”
And all of this tree-cutting and ditch-digging is happening at nearly 9,000 feet of elevation, where oxygen levels are only about 73% of sea level.
“It’s something you really have to be conditioned for,” he said.
Kronick said he finds fighting wildfires rewarding and exciting, and one thing is certain: He has plenty of job security. Western wildfires have been increasing in size and frequency for years, with no end in sight, he said.
“This is going to be a record year,” he said. “The last four years have each been record-breaking, and there are more every year.”
Hot and dry conditions also help fires spread more quickly, he said.
“A generation ago, there had been one mega-fire (100,000+ acres) in the past 40 years. It was a once-in-a-career type of occurence to see one,” he said. “But I’ve I’ve been to four that size, and I’m seasonal.”