Fighting Fire with Friends

Sept. 7, 2012

Pacific senior David Yecha has been fighting wildfires each summer since he was 16. It's not always fun, but it gives him a chance to do good—and that's what the pre-med chemistry major is all about.

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Sometimes, you can like a job without really liking it, said David Yecha.

The Pacific University senior has spent the last six summers fighting wildland fires in Oregon and elsewhere.

It’s not always the dream job.

“I don’t enjoy firefighting because of the work,” he said. “It’s hard. You’re breathing smoke. You’re dirty. It’s not fun.”

But, for him, the work has a unique perk: “The fun is in building relationships and getting to know people in a way you don’t usually see people. You’re literally fighting in the trenches with each other.”

Yecha started fighting wildland fires the summer he was 16. He heard about the opportunity through a substitute at his Roseberg, Ore., high school and signed on for a youth crew with the Douglas Forest Protection Association, a group that works fire prevention, suppression and cleanup on private timber land in southern Oregon.

His parents, he admitted, were a little nervous, but they trusted the organization and David to be safe.

On the youth crew, he said, there wasn’t much actual firefighting.

“You see a little open flame, but mostly it’s mop up, road clearing and building pump chances,” Yecha said. (Pump chances, he explained, are little dams in creeks that allow engines to fill up quickly when fighting a blaze.)

The next two years were on an adult hand crew, doing much of the same work. They’d go into thickly forested areas and thin trees to create potential fire breaks at roadsides. They’d construct hand lines or lay hose during active fires. And, after a fire was contained, they’d do the “mop up,” putting out hotspots where trees or logs still smoldered.

He spent one more year on an engine crew with DFPA, then this summer, he worked with a Bureau of Land Management engine crew based in Prineville. He also spent a couple weeks fighting large fires in Wyoming in July.

“The fun part is getting the fire out. If you show up and it’s still going, getting it out, that’s fun,” Yecha said. “But the majority of the time, you don’t get to put the fire out. You have to clean up afterwards.”

That’s OK, Yecha said. He’s not in it for the adrenaline rush.

“The largest thing I’ve taken away is the camaraderie with people. Sometimes you’re out 14 to 15 hours a day for a week or two. You see them more than your family, and you generally form strong friendships,” he said.

“You also learn how important teamwork is. There are going to be certain days when…you aren’t your best, you need somebody to watch out for you and pick up the slack.

“There are few times you can do much on your own.”

Plus, he gets to feel that he’s making a difference. And that, more than anything, is what Yecha is about.

His parents, he explained, were told they wouldn’t have children. For his last two weeks in utero, doctors said he didn’t receive any nutrients.

“I wasn’t supposed to make it,” he said.

All his life, that fact has made him consider his purpose in the world and what he can do to make a difference.

He came to Pacific with an interest in wrestling, in health professions and in engineering. Ultimately, he chose a major in chemistry, and he currently is applying to medical school.

“(There’s a quote): ‘Don’t ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive and do it.’ I feel most alive when I’m helping people.

“I think being a physician is the way I could consistently help people the most,” he said. “There’s something special about looking someone in the eye and knowing you can help. The ability to come through for a person in their time of need, there’s something worthwhile in that.”

In the meantime, he’ll continue fulfilling his desire to serve by helping other students with homework (this is his third year as a teaching assistant at Pacific), lending a listening ear, bandaging those who need it and, yes, firefighting.

“I’m trying to find a job as an EMT, but few organizations are hiring,” Yecha said. “Until I find a job where I feel I can make as much of a difference, I will continue firefighting.”