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Blazing a Trail

Monday, September 10, 2018
keller fighting fire

First-year student battles Carr Fire in California before starting college

by Miriam Sitz Grebey '10

Many incoming students spend their final days before heading to college in a summer haze of late mornings, lazy afternoons, and last-minute runs to Bed Bath & Beyond. That haze was much more literal for Keller Maharrey ‘22, who spent the two weeks prior to move-in day fighting California’s sixth-most destructive wildfire in the state’s history.

A first-year student from Birmingham, Ala., Maharrey has worked as a contract wildland firefighter for the past two summers. Last year, his first gig battling blazes took him to Oregon for six weeks; this season, he accepted four assignments in Kansas, Texas, and California. But the Carr Fire, which burned nearly 230,000 acres in Northern California over the course of a month, was unlike any he’d experienced before. “It was massive, and it did crazy things that no one expected,” he says. “We had a fire tornado! That just doesn’t happen.”

keller with firetruck

Physically, the job is grueling: Maharrey passed the days clearing brush and shoveling dirt to create swaths of barren land that would halt the inferno’s spread, or hosing down encroaching flames to keep them from hopping the lines. But the labor isn’t the hardest part. “For your whole 16-hour shift you’re constantly paying attention, and it wears on you mentally,” he says. “You’re always looking for the next thing that might try to kill you.”

It’s dangerous work, but Maharrey finds it exhilarating. “You’ve got to have that endurance sport mentality, because objectively you’re doing a lot of really uncomfortable things,” he explains. “But it pays real well and I love it.” He might even spend spring break doing controlled burning of farmland in Kansas—a process that returns nutrients to the soil and prevents out-of-control blazes in the future. “It’s helpful, but it’s also so much fun,” he says. “Like, ‘Here’s four miles of land we need burned to a crisp, and here’s a bunch of government equipment to do it with.’ If you’re even a little bit of a pyromaniac, it’s just the best job.”

While battling the Carr Fire this summer, Maharrey lived in a temporary trailer and tent city of some 4,000 people. Wildland firefighters typically work 16-hour days for two weeks straight before getting two days off to rest and recover, so everything from food and laundry service to sleeping and shower facilities must be brought in and set up to serve the men and women on duty. “You meet so many good people,” says Maharrey, who, at 19 years old, is usually the youngest member of his crew.

keller and his dad

The Trinity student comes from a proud line of firefighters: his uncle owned a fire truck contracting company, and his father belonged to an elite team of wildfire fighters, known as “hotshots,” for eight years. His dad also led Maharrey’s engine team at the Carr Fire. “It’s awesome when we get to work together,” he says.

Coming straight to Trinity’s campus from the fire in California has given Maharrey a different perspective than most on overcoming challenges. “College is tough,” he says, “but it’s not as tough as hiking 5 miles with a 45-pound backpack to fight fires. It’s nice to just have a normal life right now.”

Only a few weeks into his first semester, Maharrey hasn’t yet declared a major, but he is taking business classes, which will equip him with useful skills no matter where he ends up. Outside of the classroom, he’s playing rugby—“to stay in shape for firefighting.”

Miriam Sitz Grebey ’10 is a Brooklyn-based journalist and a senior editor at Architectural Record magazine. She majored in Spanish at Trinity and got her masters from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.