Fire Captain Named Outstanding Firefighter of the Year

  • By Andrew Madsen, Los Padres Public Affairs

Photograph of three men; two wearing Forest Service uniforms, standing behind a golden trophy.

Ozena Fire Captain Ryan Bridgen is flanked by Mt. Pinos District Ranger Erik Van Walden (left) and Mt. Pinos Fire Management Officer John Abell (right) after receiving his trophy as Outstanding Firefighter of the Year.

Los Padres NF Engine Captain Ryan Bridgen was recently honored as the Ventura County (Calif.) Kiwanis Club’s “Outstanding Firefighter of the Year” for 2012. This recognition comes as Bridgen returned to work after more than a year of rehabilitation following a September 2011 lightning strike that left him and four of his colleagues seriously injured.

Bridgen’s coworkers welcomed him back during a district celebration in October where he was presented with a plaque and trophy; a certificate of recognition for “Dedication and Commitment to Service” signed by California state senator Tony Strickland; certificates of commendation signed by the five Ventura County Supervisors; and a “Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition” signed by U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy.

While Bridgen said “the memory is really vague” of the moment the lightning struck in the midst of his fire crew, he has no trouble remembering the hurdles he overcame while recovering from his traumatic injury that kept him off work for nearly 13 months.

At the outset he was unable to perform many of life’s basic tasks. He initially encountered a sea of red tape as he maneuvered through the bureaucracy of the workman’s compensation program. Following an appointment with a doctor near his home in Bakersfield, Bridgen learned the doctor wasn’t covered under workman’s comp through the Department of Labor. He finally connected with a neuropsychiatrist experienced in working with survivors of lightning strikes.

“It was nearly two months before I saw the right doctor” after leaving the hospital, Bridgen said. “I’d never been on workman’s comp, and didn’t know how the process worked.”

He had been misdiagnosed at first. “They thought I had a couple of seizures,” he said. This was later proved inaccurate.

Bridgen, 31, began his career in fire on Los Padres’ Mt. Pinos Ranger District in 1999 shortly after graduating from high school. He has served as the Engine Captain at the Ozena Station since 2007. Although he was committed to physical training at work, he had never spent much time exercising on his personal time. But Bridgen began to find solace in running as he slowly recovered from his injuries, and eventually ran hundreds of miles to clear his head and release the strain of not being able to work.

His greatest support came from his wife and two daughters, aged 13 and 10.

Bridgen began making serious strides in his recovery this spring.

“There’s been a huge improvement since March and April,” he said. “I am finally able to read and retain information. Before that, I would read a paragraph and not be able to tell you what I’d just read.”

While Bridgen continues to experience the aftereffects of that harrowing event in September 2011, he was medically cleared to resume work full-time. And although his co-workers were enthusiastic about his return last month, no one is more thankful than Bridgen himself.

“It feels great to be back,” he said.