Wisconsin transplant paid to play with fire | ParkRecord.com

Wisconsin transplant paid to play with fire

by Steve Phillips, record contributing writer

Brad Washa likes it hot — hot and smoky!

No, it’s not what you might think. He’s a wildland firefighter, more at home in the midst of a raging fire than in his own living room. He’s a tough guy, driven to pursue a dangerous career that few would choose. A few minutes with him and it becomes clear that destiny, not chance, led this Pinebrook resident to his life’s work.

Washa is the only son of Delores and Geoff Washa. He has a younger sister, Kathy. He grew up in Mayville, Wisconsin, a small town of about 4500 people. The upper mid-western, mostly rural community was fertile ground for a growing boy. He developed a strong work and environmental ethic as a child, following the role models of his hard-working parents.

"I started making money as a kid cutting grass and ‘picking’ rocks from farmers’ fields outside of town. There are a lot of rocks in Wisconsin," says Washa.

He became fascinated with fire at an early age. "As a kid I used to clean up the brush around my grandmother’s house every year. I’d start the brush on fire, let it burn down and then put it out with the garden hose. I really liked playing with fires," he recalls.

Another early indicator of his career path came in the 2nd grade. "I’d run around the playground wailing like a siren and pretending I was a fire engine," he confesses.

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Washa grew up hunting and recreating throughout the state. During high school, he worked for the Youth Conservation Corps at a national wildlife refuge.

"I think that had a positive influence on me, being exposed to environmental jobs," he says.

He graduated from Mayville High School in 1986 and attended the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. He was working toward a law degree in environmental law when he took a summer job at Mesa Verde National Park. It was a fateful decision.

"I’d always wanted to see the Rocky Mountains," he says. "My grandmother gave me the John Denver greatest hits album when I was 10 and I’d fantasized about them ever since listening to ‘Rocky Mountain High.’" I almost turned around and drove back to Wisconsin when I got to Colorado because the eastern part was so flat. But I kept driving and, when I finally saw the mountains, I knew I was home."

That summer, Mesa Verde experienced the largest wildfire in park history. A seasonal park ranger, Washa was trained as a federal wild-land firefighter and assigned to the helitack team. It was a long, hot, smoke-filled summer on the fire line. Washa says he had his closest call as a firefighter that summer. "I was lucky I wasn’t killed that first summer, and I learned a lot about what not to do on a fire," he says.

Washa returned to UW in the fall, scrapped his plan to attend law school, changed his major to Resource Management and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1990. He was accepted to graduate school at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and pursued a master’s degree in Forest Fire Science. Over the next several years he worked in a variety of firefighting jobs in Colorado, New York and New Mexico.

In 1999 he accepted a position as a fire and fuels management specialist with the federal Bureau of Land Management in Medford, Oregon. He settled in nearby Ashland and completed his master’s thesis.

During his years in Colorado, Washa had taken up downhill skiing with a passion and now looked forward to exploring the ski resorts of the Cascade Mountains. Within a few years he tired of the "Cascade concrete" [bad snow] of Oregon and began looking for a new firefighting job in better ski country. That’s when he discovered Utah and Park City.

In 2004 he accepted a position with the Utah BLM state office as the state fuels management specialist and fire ecologist. "I bought a house in Pinebrook because it was out of the valley and close to the mountain, great skiing, biking trails and the No Name Saloon."

Although his primary job now is keeping Utah’s BLM range and forest lands healthy by identifying areas for prescribed burns, Washa still spends most summers on the fire line managing multiple crews of firefighters and predicting what a fire will do. Prolonged drought in much of Utah and the West has resulted in frequent wildfires and a critical need for highly trained, experienced men and women.

Washa struggles to verbalize exactly why he is so drawn to wild fire. "I guess it’s the dynamics of a fire, always changing, as well as the excitement and the physical challenge." He doesn’t dwell on the danger, although he lost a close friend to a fire in central Utah last summer. "It’s not easy work and you’ve got to be in good shape mentally and physically to do it," he explains.

He takes pride in his physical conditioning. He’s an avid bicyclist and skier and a regular at the Basin Recreation Center. He competes annually in the Bend, Oregon "Pole, Pedal, Paddle" competition, a grueling event that includes downhill and cross-country skiing, bicycling, running and kayaking.

Washa says he’s married to his job but would rather be married to a woman. Although he’s had several "girlfriends," he remains an unconfirmed bachelor. "I just don’t have much time for socializing during fire season," he laments.

Any woman, however, would have to compete for affection with a fire-engine red Hummer H3, a tricked-out forest green Jeep Wrangler, a Kawasaki bullet bike, two bicycles and an astounding array of skis and outdoor recreation equipment. "Did I mention I have a hot tub?" he chuckles.

Washa squeezes in some partying during football season, when he dons his Brett Farve football jersey and roots religiously for the Green Bay Packers. When his team plays on Monday nights, guests at his "brats and beer" parties are encouraged to wear cheese head hats and are forced to watch the game.

Now firmly entrenched in Pinebrook, Washa has few complaints about the area. With the exception of occasional sorties to his favorite hangouts, the Wasatch Brew Pub and the No Name Saloon, he doesn’t spend much time in town. "I really don’t care much for ‘tourons,’ especially the weird, rude city slickers that come to the Sundance Film Festival," he blurts.

About the possibility of wildfire in the Park City area, Washa is a realist. "It’s not a question of if, but when a fire comes through some of these housing areas like upper Pinebrook, Hidden Cove, Deer Valley or the Colonies," he warns. It’s critical that people clear the vegetation from around their houses and, in the worst case scenario, have a plan to get out," he says. It’s sound advice from a man who’s been playing with fire all his life.


Born in Beaver Dam Wisconsin, age 39

Favorite Foods: The salads at McDonald’s when I’m on the road, and Healthy Choice microwaveable meals at home.

Pets: None. "I have some cool plastic goldfish that bob around in a bowl of water."

Favorite Author: Norman MacLean, who wrote "A River Runs Through It," and not much else.

Favorite things to do in Park City: Ski, bicycle, run, lift weights and shovel snow off the driveway. "Really, it’s a Wisconsin thing."

HEAD: Wisconsin transplant paid to play with fire.

DECK: Wildland firefighter Brad Washa credits singer John Denver for his love of the mountains.

QUOTE: "I was lucky I wasn’t killed that first summer "

Brad Washa about the 1989 Mesa Verde fire

CAPTION: Washa in his Pinebrook front yard. The Wisconsin native eschews Park City "tourons."