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Firefighter risks all to help fight wildfires

Andrew Sikes has a deep-rooted desire to fight fires.

Sikes, 29, from Fredericktown, recently harnessed his skills to help fight the wildfires in Colorado.

“I have always seen the shortage of firefighters and I always wanted to be able to help,” Sikes said. “I hate seeing people in need and not being able to help them. I am always looking to better myself and strive to continue my training to help my departments both career and volunteer.”

Sikes has been working for the Fredericktown Fire Department as a volunteer firefighter since 2008. He started on the Jackson Fire Department as a full-time firefighter in 2012.

“I have always loved the outdoors and wildland fire world,” Sikes said. “My father is a Missouri Department of Conservation employee and has taught me a lot about outdoor and natural fires and the good effects of controlled burning, as he is a burn boss for MDC.”

Sikes said there is constantly training to attend and while there is always certifications and credits to keep up with they all somehow manage to fit it all in. In order to qualify to volunteer in Colorado, Sikes said there was a basic firefighter class to attend called FFT2 and an annual physical test or pack test he had to pass in order to prove he could keep up and stay active.

“Then from there, the opportunities are pretty well endless from paramedic to saw operator to squad boss just to name a few of the many certifications we can achieve,” Sikes said. “Then we sign up through the Mark Twain Forest Missouri/Iowa coordinating agency, MOCC, and they put teams together from everyone’s availability that they submit.”

Sikes said once a 20-person team is put together, they become available nationwide and are sent to wherever they are needed.

“The experience was one I will never forget and hope to continue to be able to go out each year at least once,” Sikes said. “I learned more in 14 days than any class or training I could have taken around here.”

Sikes said fires in Missouri can be directly fought using water and blowers and a long fire usually lasts a day.

“In the western United States a short fire is two or more weeks long,” Sikes said. “Here in Missouri the average fire we can fight with brush trucks, backpack blowers etc. In the West, we use heavy equipment and hand tools to build lines sometimes half mile or more away from the fire and then light another fire to do a ‘burn out’ operation to create lines called indirect attack.”

Sikes said fires in the western states can have flames that reach well over the 100-foot-tall trees.

Sikes says the camaraderie of firefighters can be witnessed wherever they come from. He described the brotherhood of a fire crew as if they had all known each other for years.

“The teamwork was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Sikes said. “My team came from all across the state and we were all trained to the same level or greater so we blended and meshed very well. We all knew what to do and just did it without being asked. But after 21 days of being together 24/7 we knew everything about each other.”

Due to confidence in the team and his crew boss, Sikes said he never doubted his return home.

“I had an amazing team leader/crew boss, that did his best to keep us out of danger as he wanted us all to go home,” Sikes said. “Yes it’s not the safest job in the world but never once did we feel unsafe.”

Sikes said the crew reached high points on the mountain and the point of exhaustion, but all pushed through.

“The highest point I ever got on this fire was 10,600 feet and it is not for the faint of heart, but we all love the land and outdoors so much that we overlooked that our legs were numb and our lungs hurt from breathing so hard,” Sikes said. “Exhaustion is a mind game. You just have to get over it.”

Sikes said there were a million jobs to get done, but they were first assigned to do a mop-up operation, putting water on hot spots and digging out tree stumps. Then on day four they were sent to protect an unaffected area of the woods from fire spread as the fire was beginning to approach their line.

“If the fire would jump across the line to the unburnt side we would quickly put it out,” Sikes said. “We did a lot of monitoring, walking the line again, checking for fire that had jumped the line and making sure the line was holding.”

Sikes said they were later sent out or spiked out to the top of the mountain for four days and nights.

“Basically we went camping for four days in our tents with no showers etc.,” Sikes said. “Food would be flown in by helicopter daily. Yes a few MREs were in there but we did have a hot meal every night for supper. Then for breakfast and lunch was a simple burrito or a cold-cut sandwich.”

Sikes said he would most definitely do this again and that the people of Colorado were very appreciative, even springing to pay the bill for them when they would have the rare opportunity to eat out.

“You have no idea,” Sikes said. “It was an almost tearful experience how appreciative they all were. We always had kids running up to us for hugs even though we hadn’t showered in multiple days they still wanted a hug and to thank us.”

Flames would reach well over the 100-foot-tall trees.

Flames would reach well over the 100-foot-tall trees.

Smoke billowed into the air as Andrew Sikes and the rest of his crew worked to keep the fire from spreading.

Smoke billowed into the air as Andrew Sikes and the rest of his crew worked to keep the fire from spreading.

The appreciation was felt by all the firefighters as they would see signs of thankful messages throughout their time in Colorado.

The appreciation was felt by all the firefighters as they would see signs of thankful messages throughout their time in Colorado.

Victoria Kemper is a reporter for the Democrat News. She can be reached at 573-783-3366 or at vkemper@democratnewsonline.com

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