Rookie firefighters get quick initiation to rigors of job

Posted: Sunday, May 26, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Ken Schnekenburger was finding out fast that fighting forest fires was not as easy as he thought it would be.

After getting only about two hours of sleep Thursday night and no breakfast Friday morning, he spent hours sawing down trees to build a fire break to try to keep a major wildfire from reaching Chena Hot Springs Road.

Inevitably, the rookie got sick.

''My little brother used to fight fires. He said, 'Tell them you can run the chain saw,''' Schnekenburger said while checking his feet for blisters Friday during a rest break.

On a hot day of climbing steep terrain and cutting down trees, he was regretting his decision to volunteer for that particular heavy, demanding job.

Then he threw up the only thing he had stomached that morning -- water -- and regretted it even more.

Schnekenburger and half his crew from Delta Junction were getting their first taste of fighting fires Friday. The group was one of the first three 16-person Type II emergency firefighting crews to help battle a fire raging near Chena Hot Springs Road.

His crew boss, Kris Alfonzi, kept harping on Schnekenburger to drink more water as he and the rest of the young crew rested in the shade at 2 p.m.

''It's hot out here. I'm not used to this,'' Schnekenburger said. ''In my last job, I sat in an office for two years.''

Alfonzi said Schnekenburger has one of the toughest jobs as a sawyer.

''On a day like today it is (one of the toughest),'' Alfonzi said. ''When somebody's screaming at you, 'Production, production, production!'''

Alfonzi doesn't normally work with so many rookies, but Friday afternoon, things were going relatively well.

''We're doing all right. Nobody is dead,'' he said. ''They're Deltoids, so they learn real quick. A lot of them have brothers and sisters that have done this before.''

Some of the young crew were snacking, while Alfonzi and other more experienced firefighters were scrambling to get hose lines hooked up.

Most of the rookies say they're working as emergency firefighters for the money.

The pay starts around $12 an hour and, as rookie Tim Huebscher said, ''You don't have to spend your money working out at a health club.''

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