As the first female graduate of Fox Valley Technical College’s Wildland Firefighter Program, Chilton’s Kayla Brunette enjoys putting out fires.
But Brunette, 25, makes it clear that her real passion is starting fires.
She has responded to the call about 10 times to help extinguish wildfires around Wisconsin, including as recently as late September when firefighters worked for four or five days to try to put out a peat bog fire.
But Brunette also guesses she has been on about 90 prescribed burns, and she said she can envision making a career of starting fires.
“I would love to be a prescribed burn specialist,” she said. “I would love to teach that.... I think it’s being able to help the environment using something natural. Fire is cheap and effective and can be safe if you do it right. I love it.”
Brunette’s passion for prescribed burns actually might have gotten its start when she was a young girl spending a lot of time in a greenhouse business run by her grandparents near Chilton. During the winter they would bake dirt to rid it of bugs and roots. “That smell brings back those memories,” she said of the scent of the earth when she is helping with a prescribed burn.
Brunette was in eighth grade when the “9/11” terrorist attacks occurred. “I knew I wanted to help the country,” she said of her reaction to those attacks. A few years later she took a course which introduced her to fire fighting and prescribed burns. “I took a class and fell in love with it,” she said. “I can help the environment and help the community.”
This busy young woman does a lot of other things to help area communities. She works as an emergency medical technician with Gold Cross Ambulance stationed in Brillion. Brunette also is a member of the Chilton Fire Department, has interned for almost a year for FVTC’s Wildland Firefighter Program, and also is considered an intern with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Brunette said she took about 2-1/2 years to complete the Wildland Firefighter Program and graduated last December. “The coolest thing we got to do is we have a bulldozer class,” she said. “It’s a hoot.”
When she was in the program there were about 40 students in it. Many of them spent their summers out West gaining experience and money for school battling some of the country’s largest wildfires. Many of those students head west again after graduation to work for some type of natural resources agency.
To date, Brunette has only fought wildfires in Wisconsin, although she said she did have the opportunity to go out West. The call can come in to respond anytime of the day or night, and Brunette said she is grateful for a supportive mother and boyfriend who look after her dog when she is called to a fire or working a 24-hour ambulance shift. “There’s no way I could do this without that support system,” she said.
At the recent peat bog fire she helped do “plumbing work” and also hosed down the smoking peat. Tanker trucks brought in load after load of water to pour on the fire. “You come back the next day and it’s still smoking,” Brunette said. “It’s like, ‘Am I making a difference?’”
She added, “I like doing the wildland fire fighting, but 14-to 16-hour days are tiring... I just love sitting down and plotting out a field (for a prescribed burn). I can predict where a fire will go based on weather and conditions. If I come home with my hair smelling like smoke, I’m a happy girl. Sometimes it takes three days to get the smell out.”
Brunette said she worked on prescribed burns on almost a daily basis this year from April to June until conditions got too dry to safely do them. She has travelled as far north as Florence and Eagle River to help with burns, including one which was 4,000 acres and saw the crew working 15-hour days for five days.
Nature has long taken care of itself with wildland fires started by lightning.
Mark Sherry photo
Native Americans learned to set fires to reduce vegetation, improve wildlife or grazing habitat, and create space for crops. Brunette said, “I wish I could travel back in time and see what Wisconsin looked like. I was taught that fire is scary,” but she said her studies and experience have shown her how fire can be used in a good way to reduce hazardous conditions in wildlands, restore natural conditions, improve wildlife and livestock habitat, control pest problems and improve access.
Brunette said her FVTC courses included information on wildlife management and how plant life benefits and thrives after prescribed burns are done. She said she continues to be impressed with how quickly nature regenerates itself after a fire. She said she can go back to a burn area a week later and hardly be able to tell where the burn took place.
Brunette’s training provides the best of both worlds—the ability to put out fires when necessary to save people and property, and the ability to know when and where to set fires to help the environment.