Firefighter Rob Kovacs has returned as a member of the Mifflin Township Division of Fire after spending the summer fighting wildfires with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Montana has been experiencing an active wildfire season because of wind, low relative humidity and a lack of rain.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock declared disasters for areas coping with wildfires and drought.
After spending two decades fighting structural fires, Kovacs said he was looking for something new and challenging.
"I found everything I was looking for and more," he said.
Kovacs, 40, of Thornville, said he left Montana at the end of August, when it still faced disaster conditions.
"It's a whole other kind of work out there," he said. "Everything is fast-paced, red lights and sirens.
"There are fires I was on there, in their infancy of 122 acres, that are now 3,000 acres."
Kovacs said he was issued meals ready to eat and water bottles to stuff into his line gear.
"You don't know if you'll be in a tent or under the stars," he said.
Kovacs said he learned early on about the importance of eating enough food to maintain energy and staying hydrated by drinking water.
"We got called early to a fire that went to a large-scale incident," he said. "There were already large fires in the area. We were familiar with planes dropping retardant and crews on ground."
He was among the first on the scene, when many resources were not yet available.
"Now I'm at a maximum heart-rate time for hours and it was 106 degrees and fighting fire," he said. "I heard the radio transmission and it became a surreal thing. I didn't have enough energy to support my own weight. Everyone else is ahead of the fire trying to pinch it off."
He told his partner something wasn't right.
"He said to take a minute," Kovacs said. "I took water but still felt surreal. We agreed to stop again."
His partner also began to feel tightness in his legs, and more help arrived.
From then on, Kovacs said, his crew carried extra water.
"The climate has changed there and it's really hot weather, low humidity and high winds. It was a lesson learned that day."
Kovacs said it was humbling to experience one end of the spectrum, and then another dealing with wildfires in the West.
"I had a fire in the Rockies the first week of June. We would fly and recon the area," he said.
As he was speaking to a helicopter pilot from the ground, Kovacs said, he heard on the radio that a ranch owner didn't want the pilot to get any more water from his pond and he wanted water already taken to be replaced.
"Very kindly the pilot says, 'OK, I think we've dipped here before. Once we put the fire to bed, I'll get some from the Missouri River and replace his water.' "
On the opposite extreme was a rancher about to lose everything who wanted to make sure Kovacs was safe.
"I rode around with the ranch owner in a pickup truck," he said. "The fire was three miles away from his ranch, his barns, home and acreage. We're very far away from where the rest of my team is."
With tears in the rancher's eyes, the two discussed options.
"We had airplanes with retardant on another fire," Kovacs said. "I'm redirecting his energy to keep him in the fight, telling him we're doing everything we can."
He asked if the rancher had a tractor and equipment that could be used to clear a defensible space around the property.
"I told him to let me off here, and he's looking at me and on the verge of crying and says, 'I'm worried about you getting burned.' And he wanted to take me to safety.
"It went from disagreeing about what you're doing, to a man losing everything and wanting to keep me safe."
He said the Montana agency is used to college-aged folks helping with relief efforts.
"Because of my experience here, they put me through advanced training to use me as a squad boss," Kovacs said. "I said I could lead or be led. It was an honor they saw value in me. They put me through leadership courses."
He said he was on an unpaid leave of absence from Mifflin while working in Montana.
Kovacs has since been recalled to help fight fires in Montana, but he elected to return to Mifflin instead.
Mifflin Fire Chief Fred Kauser said Kovacs is one of the many exceptional firefighters in the department.
"His (Kovacs') service to the forestry service in fighting wild-land fires is an invaluable learning experience that translates in many ways to the firefighting and rescue work he performs locally," Kauser said. "We are glad that he has returned safely and is back serving our citizens."
Mifflin Township Trustee Lynn Stewart said her first-hand experience with the local firefighters has given her a deep appreciation for the sacrifices they make for others every day.
"Rob and our other Mifflin Township firefighters who serve outside of our community during disasters and large-scale emergencies, like the wild land fires out West, are to be commended," she said.