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DNR fire crews finish out-of-state season, gain valuable experience

Holly Toohey recently spent two weeks in a beautiful part of northern California’s mountains, but this was no high-end, relaxing getaway.

Toohey, a resource analyst for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, spent 16-hour shifts making maps to help firefighters on the front lines contain the South Fork Complex Fire, a collection of four wildfires totaling around 4,000 acres near Hayfork, California.

“It allowed me to get a lot of experience, to really learn the job and the role,” said Toohey, who was on her first trip as a DNR fire crew member working out of state.

Days were long but rewarding.

“Most people think it’s kind of crazy to be working really long hours for a couple of weeks at a time,” she said. “But all other distractions are removed. It’s the only thing you’re living at that moment. Your whole purpose is to do your job on that fire, and it doesn’t feel very taxing because it’s so rewarding.”

Cooperation is key

Toohey’s stint in California was one of about 50 out-of-state assignments Michigan DNR fire staff accepted during the 2023 fire season. Those assignments included front-line firefighters and personnel with skills in management, communication, finance and more. Besides California, Michigan fire staff this year helped battle fires in Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah and the Canadian province of Manitoba.

Michigan is always fully reimbursed for the cost of sending staff out of state, and those working on fires elsewhere gain valuable experience that can help make them more effective at home.

“These assignments are important because our teams learn as they go, bringing back things they can apply when we have an incident here,” said Paul Rogers, a DNR fire prevention specialist who has been on a number of out-of-state-assignments. “You really can’t replace the experience of actually doing the job in a real-life situation where you are protecting people, property and the resource of the forest.”

Michigan's dry spring

In 2022, Michigan sent staff on a total of 69 out-of-state assignments; in previous years that number has been even higher. Fewer staff left the state during 2023 due to an elevated risk of fire here at home.

“Michigan had the driest spring in more than 30 years and we needed to make sure we could handle anything that came up at home,” Rogers said. Michigan even got some help from other states this season. Firefighters from South Dakota were on standby in the Upper Peninsula during the driest part of the spring, and crews from Wisconsin came in early June to help with the 2,400-acre Wilderness Trail Fire near Grayling.

“The out-of-state help works both ways and there is a long tradition of cooperation,” Rogers said.

Toohey said she would eagerly accept another out-of-state assignment.

“The camaraderie on the team that I was with was just phenomenal. It really was the best experience I could have had as my first time working out of state.”

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Note to editors: Accompanying photos are available below for download. Caption information follows.

  • Planning team: Michigan DNR resource analyst Holly Toohey, second from right, stands with other members of the planning team in front of a map they created at the South Fork Complex Fire, a 4,000-acre group of wildfires in northern California earlier this season. Toohey is one of several dozen DNR staff who helped fight wildfires in other states this season. 
  • Burning hillside: Fire and smoke climb up a mountainside as part of the South Fork Complex fire in northern California. It was comprised of four fires that burned about 4,000 acres starting in mid-August.