Fighting the flames

Marie Havenga • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:52 PM

Back home, his family was reminded of what can happen to those in William's line of work when 19 firefighters in Arizona were consumed by the very power they sought to conquer.

William joined the U.S. Forest Service four years ago as a wildland firefighter for a life of heat, flames, living in the tangled underbrush and sleeping on stone-cold mountainsides.

The Tribune sent several text messages to William this week to arrange a telephone interview, but this message was sent back: “I'm sorry, I'm on a fire.”

The 2008 Spring Lake High School graduate is currently based in Burley, Idaho, trying to “lay down” a fire. Before that, he was battling flames in Colorado for two weeks. That was after a stint in Dark Canyon, Utah.

“They get called out anywhere,” said his mom, Terri Creeden. “When a fire needs another engine or hand crew, they go. They work a 16-hour day, then sleep on the ground in a sleeping bag. It's pretty rough and really regimented.”

William leaves his parents' Spring Lake home every May to head west for fire duty with the Forest Service. He returns around Thanksgiving. He also studies criminal justice at Northern Michigan University.

“They have constant training for when something bad happens,” Terri said of her son's wildland firefighting job. “They're in the middle of nowhere, and have to count on each other and make smart decisions.”

Terri said she can't count how many fires her son has fought in the past four years, or the number of prayers she and her family have said for him.

She keeps in touch with her son through text messaging. But if he's in the field, he often has to leave his phone behind.

Days can go by without her cellphone chirping a text alert, but Terri stays abreast of the fire her son is fighting through Internet incident reports.

“He lets me know what state he's going to or the name of the fire,” Terri said. “... I check and see how bad it is and how many crews are there. By staying informed, I feel better.”

It's grueling work, with little time for leisure. Last summer, because of drought conditions conducive to fast-spreading fires, William worked three months with only four days off.

“People don't know what wildland firefighters do,” Terri said. “It's not even closely related to what our local fire department does. These guys are like the last of the cowboys — they're in the dirt, breathing smoke and digging dirt.”

CLICK HERE to see a U.S. Forest Service video on wildland firefighters.

To read more of this story, see today’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

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