UK’s Fire Cats: College students, ‘good firefighters’


Senior forestry major and Fire Cats crew leader Michael Kessler poses for a photo on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, at the William T. Young Library on UK’s campus in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Natalie Parks

For most students, mid-October means mid-term season. But the UK Fire Cats aren’t most students.

The Fire Cats are UK students working as firefighters through a partnership with the Kentucky Division of Forestry and U.S. Forest Service. For these students, mid-October means the start of the fall fire season.

Since the program’s first fire season in the spring of 2014, the Fire Cats have been a way for UK forestry students to get hands-on experience in a subject essential for their future careers.

This year’s crew is only 10 students. To qualify for the program, an applicant must be a UK student in a related major and in good standing with the university, be able to work weekends during spring and fall fire seasons, complete the forestry department’s wildfire training courses and pass the work capacity test-–walking three miles in 45 minutes while wearing a 45 lb weighted vest.

“What we end up getting is a really good group of young men, young women who are good firefighters,” said Fire Cats’ Mike Harp.

A 1996 UK forestry grad, Harp is the rural fire suppression technical advisor for the Kentucky Division of Forestry. He has been involved with the Fire Cats program since the beginning through his previous job as an assistant fire chief with KDF. He asked to keep working with the Fire Cats in his new position because of how much he enjoyed it.

“Coming out of forestry, I knew nothing about fire, so this is a way for me to at least help the new students coming out that fire is probably going to be a big part of their job if they’re looking for state work or federal work,” said Harp.

Harp handles most of the administrative work of the program–processing applications, administering the work capacity test and teaching the refresher course participants have to have every year.

Harp also tells the Fire Cats crew if they are staffing each weekend.

The Fire Cats staff going out on the weekend is mostly dependent on weather, said Kristian Pickering. Pickering is the chief forester of the Pineville branch of the KDF. A 2015 UK graduate, she is also a former Fire Cat and this year’s Fire Cat contact/supervisor.

When the Fire Cats get a call, it’s usually Pickering they meet up with and follow to the site, said Michael Kessler. A senior forestry major, Kessler is a second-year Fire Cat and this year’s crew leader.

Kessler said that last year, he did not work a fire at all during the fall. This year, he and four other students have already been out, working on a fire the weekend of October 5.

For KDF, having the Fire Cat crew available benefits their overall effectiveness.

“It’s just like a house fire or any other emergency,” said Harp. “The more responders that you can have come to the incident, the quicker, the safer, the more economical in suppressing the fire or whichever incident you’re dealing with.”

Kessler said the Fire Cats’ role in a fire depends on the KDF employee they’re shadowing that day.

“Depending on that person’s designation, we may be right there in the very thick of it or we might be cutting line on a flank where it’s not as necessary, but still important,” said Kessler. Cutting a line means creating a fire break by removing fuel like leaves or grass and is usually achieved through digging.

Teaching is an important part of the Fire Cats program. Pickering said she loves the teaching aspect; as a former Fire Cat and UK forestry grad, she feels she can bond with the students and fill in the gaps she wished she’d been taught.

“When they come down, we’re not like throwing them on a fire line and not like, ‘put this fire out,’” said Pickering. “They’re with very experienced people and we take our time with them and really train spend a lot of time with them, showing them why we’re doing certain things so they can kind of get that full concept down.”

While on the job, the students learn techniques for fighting fire in Kentucky, techniques that are different from western U.S. fires, said Pickering.

“They get to see a lot of fire behavior, fire activity and actually get what they learn in the classroom and put it into use,” said Pickering.

He doesn’t feel the job is too demanding physically, since they always have plenty of time to complete a task.

“You might be climbing the steepest hills possible and digging lines, and then you make it to the top and depending on how the fire’s acting you’ll more than likely do a backburn, which is just a safer means of applying fire to fight fire,” said Kessler.

In Kessler’s experience, all the weekends he’s worked were spent fighting a fire. If they don’t need to be on a fire, which is a good thing, said Harp, the Fire Cats will do extra training.

“We’ll do chainsaw training safety, sometimes we’ll do just different material handling trainings, do your gear checks, sharpen tools, keep everything primed. It’s not a waste of time for them to sit around; that way we’re ready to respond and you don’t show up on a fire and say ‘woah, my chainsaw doesn’t work’ or ‘this tool is dull’,” said Harp.

A typical shift for the Fire Cats begins around 11 a.m. morning dew and low humidity mean they Fire Cats don’t need to get out to the field early, said Harp.

Kessler said they try to get back to Lexington by midnight. If they’ve been working in Pineville, this can mean leaving the fire site by 9 p.m.

The midnight deadline is preferred because then the Fire Cats are guaranteed eight hours of rest. Kessler said the Fire Cats can work longer shifts, but that means they cannot go back out.

“If you work a 16-hour shift on Saturday, you’re done,” said Kessler.

KDF provides all the equipment for the Fire Cats, including a van used only for traveling from UK to the fires, said Harp.

Not all crew members can work the same shift, said Kessler. Because two benches in the Cats have been removed to make room for gear, there’s only room for nine in the vehicle. Neither can all 10 Fire Cats work both Saturdays and Sundays; working out the shift scheduling is part of Kessler’s job as crew leader.

As crew leader, he has to work both Saturdays and Sundays, keep track or records and take care of the KDF-provided van.

“It’s a matter of how extra you want to go because I’m going to try to keep record of the acres of fires that we worked,” said Kessler of the crew leader role.

Kessler is also responsible for the chain of custody of gear.

“You’ve seen the firefighters that run into like giant buildings that are on fire, it’s nothing like that,” said Kessler of the equipment. “We have these tacky green pants and these tacky yellow shirts that are flame resistant and then you have like a set of suspenders-type deal that’s got various ways to mount pouches on it, and that’s again just a very tacky yellow.”

Other gear includes a hard hat, hand tools and maybe a leaf blower if the occasion calls for it.

Although the Fire Cats are paid by KDF, the program is about more than the money. Instead, it’s all about experience, experience, experience.

“It’s really all about professional development for our students,” said Jeffery Stringer. “We were just lucky to be able to put this construct together, cause it’s not your normal thing.”

Dr. Stringer is chair of the UK Department of Forestry and Natural Resources. He said the Fire Cats program ties into the department’s emphasis on experiential learning and hands-on classes; students in the forestry major spend their spring semester junior outside in field classes.

Practical limitations keep all of firefighting from being taught in the classroom, which is where Fire Cats comes in as experiential learning.

“You can teach a lot of thing in the classroom about fire science and those kind of things, but you get out and experience, and that’s better,” said Dr. Stringer.

He also said that in exit interviews, Fire Cats say “it’s a valuable program, want to keep it going, got a lot out of it.”

Kessler said his experiences as a Fire Cat have absolutely applied to his classes.

“There’s some people that are on the fence about forestry in general but then they go on their first fire and they catch this buzz, you know, and it’s like they can’t do it enough. It really pushes them to excel in forestry so they can go on,” said Kessler.

According to Dr. Stringer, most Fire Cats do end up pursuing general forestry careers, and Pickering said the students in Fire Cats are genuinely interested in what they learn.

“They have so many questions and they’re really engaged, so to me that’s huge. They care, they want to know why we’re doing things, so their engagement is really, really good,” said Pickering.

Kessler said part of what makes the program successful is getting to interact with state agencies like the KDF and meeting influential people.

“It says a lot for the program and I think the people that are working with these students and teaching them everything, I mean you’ve got people with 20 years of experience out here with them,” said Pickering.

According to Harp, a background in firefighting like what the Fire Cats provide can be hugely beneficial to students looking for forestry jobs.

“To be able to walk in, put your application in in another state and/or the U.S. Forest service and list on there that you are a trained firefighter Type 2 that has been pack-tested and worked for x-number of seasons with the Division of the Forestry is a big bonus for your application,” said Harp. He said he knew of several UK Fire Cats who beat out 4000 applicants for a summer position with the Bureau of Land Management solely because of their Fire Cats experience.

Pickering said her experience as a Fire Cat set her apart when applying for jobs, leading to a position with a Type 2 crew in the Idaho Panhandle. She said she knew of three students who had gone out west to work on hotshot crews, which she called the “elite” firefighters.

“I don’t think people how competitive these jobs are,” said Pickering. “It’s not uncommon that you get two or three hundred applicants, especially students during the summer looking for some wildland fire experience, getting picked up on some western crews. It’s highly competitive.”

For Kessler, the Fire Cat experience has paid off. As a non-traditional student, he said it’s helped him find a place in the campus community. And when he graduates this year, he has a job with the forest service waiting for him.