Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Summer 2010 (July 2010)

Fighting Fire with a Liberal Arts Degree

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July 2010
By Lynn Vollbrecht'06

FirefightersIt’s often noted that a typical Beloiter is anything but, and usually the Beloit College experience is as varied as those individuals.

That makes it even more exceptional when Beloiters from divergent walks of life wind up following a similar path. In the case of Matt Wills’01, Colin McClain’06, and Adam Neiffer’06, it was a smoky, sooty, physically demanding route strewn with charred underbrush: fighting forest fires across America.

After graduating from Beloit, Matt Wills was looking for something to do. “I wasn’t ready to settle in to a career yet,” says the Bellingham, Wash., native.

Following a season aboard a fishing vessel in Alaska, Wills applied to work as an apprentice with a forest-fire fighting crew employed by the U.S. Forest Service. The history major says his environmental studies minor gave him a boost in the hiring process.

Adam Neiffer had more of a past with forest-fire fighting—besides working as a firefighter between his junior and senior years, it’s part of his family lore. “My mom and dad met as firefighters in 1980,” Neiffer says. “My brother did it, and then I did it, and then my little brother did it, too.” His college football teammate and roommate, Colin McClain, followed suit and also donned a firefighter’s hard hat.

“After graduation, I wasn’t ready to go straight into grad school. I thought, what better way to see Oregon than to try this fire-fighting gig?” McClain says.

Though McClain and Neiffer were close long before they became firefighters, their time at Beloit College didn’t overlap with Wills’, and meeting the fellow alumnus was completely incidental.

When Wills got a job with an elite Oregon-based forest-fire fighting crew, he was still at a fire-fighting academy in Sacramento, Calif. His boss mentioned that a new crew member was at the academy and suggested Wills look him up. That new crew member was Neiffer.

“I found (Adam) in the cafeteria one day, and I said ‘Hi, how are you? I’m going to be your squad boss this season,’” Wills says. But the two didn’t immediately make the Beloit connection.

“It might’ve been the third time I talked to him that I asked him about schooling, and he said ‘Oh, I went back in the Midwest, went to a little college,’ and that piqued my interest, and I said, ‘where?’ and he said, ‘Oh, it was a little college, you wouldn’t know it,’” Wills recalls.

“I was sure he’d never heard of it,” Neiffer says. “And I said ‘Beloit.’ And he looked at me like I was crazy.”

McClain says he wouldn’t trade his fire-fighting experience for anything. “Having played sports with Adam at Beloit, and then meeting Matt—some of the similar experiences that we all had at Beloit have transitioned into good friendships and good chemistry.” McClain also likes that his work serves as a continuation of his time on the baseball and football fields of Beloit College.

“In a way it’s my new sport. It involves a lot of physical work, and can be mentally challenging as well,” he says. “You have 20 people on a crew, and it’s like you’re a team. It’s like a family.”

The schedule can be grueling, and the range expansive. “We’ll get dispatched anywhere from 10 miles down the road all the way to Alaska, or they’ll fly us to Florida or Minnesota. We travel all over the place,” says Wills.

“Usually, when we get called to a fire, we’re available for 14 days in a row. We can be extended up to 21 days, and it consists of 16-hour work days,” McClain says. During these stretches of intense physical labor, his athleticism comes in handy. McClain works on a chain-saw crew, clearing trees and brush for fellow firefighters.

While the job is physically demanding, the mental acuity needed to work such an intense schedule is also taxing, and remaining flexible is key to a firefighter’s success in the field.

“Beloit taught me to keep an open mind and be completely flexible to whatever comes your direction, because you never know what’s around the next bend,” Neiffer says. “That was what prepared me to fight fire.”

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