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Boots in the Forest: Kurt Thiel

Man sitting in a vehicle. Kurt Thiel, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Deputy Fire Management Officer in his work vehicle.

Hi, my name is Kurt Thiel and I’m the Deputy Fire Management Officer (FMO) at the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

What do you do?

I am in this position on a detail to support the Forest FMO, the scope of my work includes wildfires, prescribed fires and fuels treatments we conduct on the forest. Our fire program is divided into three zones, which cover the seven ranger districts on the Forest. Currently, in addition to initial attack crews and fire management professionals in fuels, fire ecology, and smoke, we also support the Logan Interagency Hotshot Crew, four helicopters, and an air tanker retardant base.

Why did you come to work for the Forest Service?

I was in college studying natural resources in 1984 when I saw an announcement on a bulletin board looking for firefighters. It sounded like fun, so I applied and the rest is history. I’ve worked with engine crews, dispatch, hotshots, and helitack in California, Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah. I used to work as an assistant zone FMO on this Forest for 16 years and 2 years as a zone FMO on the Bridger-Teton National Forest before coming back. I am facing mandatory firefighter retirement in 2019, so it’s going to be tough to leave a job I love.

A man and Smokey Bear posing for a photo. Kurt Thiel at the 4th of July Parade with Smokey.

What is your favorite part of the job?

I love the outdoors, and the job is very interesting. There are always challenges in fire management, always something new to learn, and something different that comes up every day. I’ve had so many fire qualifications, I can’t even keep them all current. I can’t think of a better career to have had.

How many wildland fires have you been on?

You know, I was keeping track of that for about the first 15 years or so, and then I just lost count but somewhere between 200-300 fires in my career.

What makes a good wildland firefighter?

Physical fitness is important, obviously, but that’s not the whole story, because I’ve seen many physically fit individuals wash out of the program, because they can’t handle what it takes mentally. It takes a strong mental attitude to accept whatever is coming at you – whatever tasks you are asked to do that day – and to carry them out safely and cheerfully.

What tips do you have for someone who thinks they want to be a firefighter?

Well, being a firefighter is not for everyone. I think it helps if you’re from a rural area and have been conditioned to spend a lot of time working outside. My advice is, if you like the outdoors and think you want to do it then go ahead and apply. You will know within the first year whether it is something for you. Realize that to be good at your job, you need to be willing to learn and gain experience at each level before you can expect to advance.

What makes a good fire manager?

When you advance into fire leadership, you then become responsible not only for yourself, but for the safety of other firefighters. I think situational awareness is the key. Without that, you can’t ensure safe operations.

What are you planning to do in retirement?

First sleep in and take care of the home front consisting of a small, self-sustaining farm near the Utah-Wyoming border that takes some work. I raise beef, pork, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. I also keep up a vegetable garden with more than 25 different crops. About the only thing I can’t grow is fruit – it just gets too cold in the winter in Wyoming. I hunt, too, so I always have antelope, deer, elk, and moose in the freezer. So I only have to go to the grocery store if I want fruit, cheese, bread, pasta and ice cream.

How many pairs of fire boots have you gone through in your career?

15 pairs of boots.

Firefighter boots Kurt Thiel wears 10” high leather fire boots,
required as part of a wildland firefighter’s personal protective equipment.

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