Yooper battles major wildfires

As a member of the Alpine Hot Shots, Bruce Crossing native Stephen Jousma literally fights fire with fire. He has battled wildfires in several western states and in Canada. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Jousma)

By Mary Shegan
Stephen Jousma is proud to be a Yooper from the small town of Bruce Crossing in the western part of the U.P. Regardless of where his wanderlust takes him, he is always pulled home. According to his mother, Joann Jousma, her youngest son, now 30, has been a free spirit and a vagabond since he was a little boy.
“I made lots of trips from my classroom to the principal’s office when I was in grade school,” Stephen admits. “Especially in the fifth grade when Mr. Gatta was my teacher.” According to Stephen, the confinement of school proved to be the challenge for him, not the learning.
In high school, as he began thinking about his future, he hoped he could combine his need for freedom, his love of the outdoors and his desire to do something useful. He knew he didn’t want the restrictions of a nine to five office job.
After graduating from the Ewen-Trout Creek School in 2008, Stephen enrolled in Northern Michigan University in Marquette to work on a degree in Environmental Conservation.
Again, he felt confined. His home in Bruce Crossing was at the end of a narrow dirt road in rural Ontonagon County, surrounded by woods where he was free to wander and to explore. Since he was determined to complete his degree, he knew he needed something to occupy his time and his mind.
He asked his mother to teach him to play the guitar.
He had grown up listening to his mother and his uncle Neil Wagner, play their guitars and sing in their living room. With his mother’s coaching, he learned fast, and his guitar and music became increasingly important to him. He has since taught himself to play the banjo, the mandolin, the ukulele and the harmonica.
While at NMU, he met a former member of a “Hot Shot” fire fighting crew, and they became friends. Stephen was fascinated by the fire fighting stories and began to consider finding a job that included learning to fight fires. The idea of getting paid to explore new territory and to sleep outdoors added to the appeal and he began to explore career options.
After graduating from NMU in 2012, Stephen accepted a position as a landscaper in Arizona. He worked there until a position became available with the Civilian Conservation Corp in Minnesota.
“The CCC originated as a federal program. When the federal funding ended, several states picked it up as a state program. Minnesota was one of those states,” Stephen explained.
“Now, since state funding is no longer available, the CCC program in Minnesota is paid for by private contributions,” he added. During the two years he worked for the CCC, Stephen and some of their other employees were subcontracted to the Minnesota Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge where he gained more fire fighting experience.
To advance as a fire fighter, he next applied for a position with the Sherburne Refuge which was a part of the Minnesota Fish and Wildlife Department. For two years, he worked with 20-person crews who were drawn from different fire fighting groups in the state. The job included setting prescribed burns and fighting state and regional fires.
Fascinated by the art and science of fire fighting and anxious to improve his skills, Stephen researched Hot Shot Fire Fighting Crews online. After doing extensive research and talking to the friend from NMU who had been an “Alpine Hot Shot” crew member, he decided to apply for a position with the elite squad.
The “Alpine Hot Shots”, a 20-person fire fighting crew headquartered in Estes Park, Colorado, is affiliated with the Rocky Mountain National Park. Because the “Hot Shots” are a part of a federal park, applications are filed on the USAJOBS website.
Applications for the seasonal federal fire fighting positions must be submitted by December. In mid-January, applicants who qualify are contacted and the screening process begins. After the initial paperwork to become a park service employee is completed, and the applicant has passed the physical examination, the endurance test begins.
Part of the endurance test is carrying a 45 lbs pack on your back for three miles and finishing in 45 minutes or less. “Then we immediately had to start an eight mile run,” Stephen explained. “Each person being in shape is critical to the crew’s survival. Fire fighting is extremely dangerous. We have to know we can rely on each other.”

Stephen Jousma, pictured above, said members of the Alpine Hot Shots endure vigorous physical conditioning and extensive training to perform their work.

Stephen Jousma, pictured above, said members of the Alpine Hot Shots endure vigorous physical conditioning and extensive training to perform their work.

For the past two years, Stephen has applied for the coveted “Alpine Hot Shot” position and has served on the elite crew in 2018 and 2019. He has fought fires in Colorado, Montana, Washington, Arizona, Nevada and Canada. “As ‘Alpine Hot Shots’ we must have up-to-date passports in case we are needed in other countries. Applicants with criminal records or recent DWI’s are not accepted.”
There is also no guarantee that a “Hot Shot” will be hired in subsequent years. Applicants must go through the entire process each season and prove that they are healthy and in shape.
“In my opinion, the ‘Alpine Hot Shots’ are the best. They have existed for over 20 years accumulating extensive fighting experience,” Stephen said with obvious pride.
According to Stephen, fire fighters can be deployed to the site of a fire for fourteen days. They travel in a “Hot Shot Buggy” which holds nine people and few personal items. The Buggy carries water, a filtration system, back packs with survival gear, saws and other tools. The crew sleeps on the ground in sleeping bags and use tents only when it is raining.
To ensure a good night’s sleep, Stephen uses ear plugs, an eye mask and often pulls the sleeping bag over his head to protect his face from the cold. “Trying to roll up a frozen sleeping bag to stow it in the buggy is a challenge.”
“We had just come off a fire in the Kootenai National Forest in Montana and were deployed to another Montana location. We arrived after dark, exhausted, and immediately spread our bags. I plugged my ears, covered my eyes and fell asleep. We didn’t realize we had camped in the middle of a huckleberry patch. During the night a grizzly was surprised to find us camped in his territory. I never heard a thing, but one of the guys woke up to the sound of the grizzly stomping the ground and fake charging us.”
“He yelled to wake us but none of us heard him. Luckily, he was too scared to run. Eventually, the bear left but he was too afraid to go back to sleep. By the time we woke up and heard the story, he was still wild-eyed!”
According to Stephen, encounters with wildlife are rare because animals are vacating the area while the fire fighters are moving toward the fire. The sawyer crew with the chain saws leads the way, cutting out dead trees and brush that would fuel an advancing fire. The swampers move everything that’s cut so the digging crew can do their job. Their goal is to dig a ten-inch-wide trench that goes below the roots since hot fires can travel underground and surface beyond a shallow trench.

Although lag time is rare, the “Alpine Hot Shots” return to their bunkhouse in Estes Park between fires. Stephen uses his limited spare time to play his guitar and write music. When the 2019 season ended in October, he returned home to Bruce Crossing and reunited with Whiskey Phoenix, the band he had helped form during the previous winter.
While in Bruce Crossing during the 2018 off season, he had attended a jam session with several local musicians. He discovered that his fifth grade teacher, Mr. Gatta, who had sent him to the principal’s office so often, was a talented musician who also played several instruments. Soon after that meeting, Stephen, his uncle Neil and Mr. Gatta formed Whiskey Phoenix.
In November 2019 Stephen applied for a 2020 “Alpine Hot Shot” position. In February he was notified that he was accepted for the Hot Shot Crew and told to report to Colorado by April 1 for training.
In the meantime, he is happy to put his wanderlust on hold and enjoy being at home in the UP for a few months and play music with “Whiskey Phoenix.”

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.