Into the Fire

Into the Fire

Physically exhausting, emotionally taxing, but ultimately rewarding, alumna enjoys work as Forest Service hotshot

By John Darwin, BA’13

Her journalism degree has taken her to the rugged wilderness of Alaska and the dry deserts of the Southwest. But Laura Fremgen, BA’10, isn’t working as a journalist — she’s a forestry technician, or hotshot, for the U.S. Forest Service.

Fremgen spent time camping and hiking as a kid growing up in Idaho, but it wasn’t until she joined AmeriCorps after graduation that she became truly enamored of the great outdoors. She worked in Utah maintaining trails and improving forest health, all while hiking in and camping with her crew — her first taste of what it was like to live and work in a rugged setting.

After getting used to the demands of the job — Fremgen recalled that the transition from casual camping to living in a tent all summer was difficult — she knew she’d chosen the right path.

“When I got my job in Utah, I figured it would be nice to go back out West,” she said. “Once I got there, I quickly made the decision never to leave.”

Her work with AmeriCorps turned out to be a natural pathway to firefighting, the field she still works in today.

Fremgen’s work as a hotshot varies wildly day to day depending on the conditions and where she’s needed. Though she’s based in Montana, she’s been dispatched to fires in Oregon, Canada and the Alaskan tundra.

Some days, she works with helicopters to get water and supplies to the front lines. Other days, she’s on the ground clearing brush and digging trenches to stop a wildfire from spreading. On tamer days, you might find her thinning local forests or doing other preventive work to reduce the risk of a major fire.

For Fremgen, the best part of the job can also be the worst.

“You get to see areas of the country — sunrises, sunsets — and be out in the wilderness, all while helping people,” she said. “But that time can also be physically and emotionally taxing. It’s hard on every aspect of your life being away from home for so long. It’s a very basic existence.”

During peak season, a hotshot crew could work 16-hour days for two weeks straight with only a few days of rest before doing it all over again.

The danger of the job can’t be ignored, either.

“Our crew does have lots of fun hiking around and being out in the mountains all summer,” she said, “but I have lost some close friends doing this work. Wildland firefighters put themselves in a great deal of danger on a daily basis.”

Still, Fremgen said, the work is incredibly fulfilling. The crew she works on — 20 men and women who work together fighting fires from late spring to the start of winter — are like brothers and sisters. They have plenty of memories to share, most of them made miles from civilization where cellphone service is limited and “home” is a tent and sleeping bag.

“It’s a mix of things that make me want to come back every day,” said Fremgen. “People are appreciative of the work we do. Working as a team to go out and help people is extremely rewarding.”

Weddings, vacations and other commitments with friends, though important, will have to wait. Until the first snowfall, Fremgen and the rest of her hotshot crew will be on the front lines, employing all the firefighting tools in their arsenal and doing their best to keep the season’s wildfires far away from anywhere they might do harm.