written by: sarah blevinsphotos provided by donald hughes & hometown living
Thick, ashy clouds billowed upwards, covering Californian skies that were clear just days earlier. Scorching flames embraced hills of noble pines, causing them to crumble to the ground. Strong winds encouraged the fire’s destructive quest, causing chaos for those caught in its path. It was like nothing the Wichita Fire Department had ever seen before. “It was worse than the first time we went out there in 2018,” said Donald Hughes, who’s been at the Wichita Falls Fire Department for 36 years. “The fires were bigger, and everything was out of control.”
“There’s never a dull moment. We serve the public more and it's a great job." - Donald Hughes
Hughes journey to becoming a fire fighter began in May of 1984, when he first entertained the idea of becoming a police officer. Due to a series of unpredictable events, the idea never came to fruition. “I came back home and several of my friends had tried out and gotten on with the Wichita Fire Department,” Hughes explained, “So, I thought I’d just give it a try and it’s worked out great for me.”
A lot of training goes on into becoming a fire fighter, Hughes explained. Before any kind of training can begin it is crucial for new recruits to pass an initial civil service exam, which is necessary for both police and fire fighter positions. After recruits pass the exam, they then face the next step, the physical agility portion of the process. Once that is completed, the next step is to pass an ergometric test, which is a video-based testing system that assesses the critical skills one needs as a fire fighter. In addition to mechanical aptitude, reading ability, and basic math skills analysis, it covers the often-overlooked content areas of teamwork and human relations.
Even if you make it this far, there are even more obstacles to face. “It gradually whittles the guys down,” Hughes remarked. “In the last recruitment, we tested about 90 people. After panel interviews and the chief interviews, we had 15 people to choose from for ten positions.”
Once everything is in order, the new recruits must complete additional steps, such as clearing background checks as well as physical and psychological evaluations. All of this takes place within a span of twenty-four weeks. “By the time you get to the academy you get vetted pretty well,” Hughes claims. “After all of that is completed, you go through the EMT portion of the school and get your Texas State commission for the health side and you’re ready to get certified.”
Hughes spent twelve years fighting fires, since first joining the Wichita Falls Fire Department in 1984, before being promoted to fire equipment operator. For Hughes, each day at the Fire Department is different and exciting, and if he had a chance to do it all over again, he would in a heartbeat. “There’s never a dull moment,” he remarks. “We serve the public more and it’s a great job.” In no time at all he became Assistant Chief of the Fire Department and is also the Northwest Coordinator for the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System (TIFMAS). Part of being a coordinator is to create “strike teams” to combat extremely out of control fires in other states. This includes the recent uncontrollable fires in California, where he and his team were sent to help.
Many of the fires were caused by thunderstorms resulting from Tropical Storm Fausto. Paired with the preceding heat wave, fire spread rapidly and unchecked. Less than a month passed when a creek fire added on to the chaotic scene, causing hundreds of campers to be temporarily trapped. Gusty winds from the Sierra Nevada paired with millions of dead trees fed into the fire’s destruction. The most recent damages in the San Bernardino National Forest resulted from a pyrotechnic device used for a gender reveal party. It was more than anything they have ever handled before, and according to Hughes, it was the worst fire season they had ever seen.
“The first time that we were out there, there was just smoke,” Hughes added. “But the sky was orange. You wouldn’t think that the sky can be that orange in the middle of the afternoon.”
“It's just a different type of firefighting out there and it's a lot more dangerous.” - Donald Hughes
In the first attempt to regain control of the fire, ten engines were sent out, which each carried a handful of fire fighters. As the fires continued to grow and get worse, two coordinators headquartered in California called in fifty engines from Texas, carrying a total of 250 fire fighters. Two weeks after arriving in California the fires continued to rage on, almost unmanageable.
“The fires were bigger than the first time we went out there,” he continued. “They were being wind driven plus the temperatures were really elevated at the time, so everything was out of control.”
All fire fighters on the scene worked in 24-hour shifts in order to contain the spreading fires. Once the fire department was able to maintain control of the situation, things started to look up. The weather in California started to change; cooler air and less humidity replacing the harsh winds that fueled the fire for weeks before. Nights also started to become chilly, adding more recovery aid to the fire departments.
And then the rains came.
A month after their arrival, the majority of the fires were contained, and the Wichita Falls Fire Department was heading home. According to Hughes, it was the ultimate learning experience for everyone, especially for the Wichita Falls Fire Department. “The ‘fireman world’ is a whole lot different in California than what we’re use to here,” Hughes explained. “There’s not a lot of lineman training that we do and here in Texas we don’t have 200 ft trees that we’re dealing with-like you do out in California- so we don’t get to practice. It’s just a different type of firefighting out there and it’s a lot more dangerous. I gained a lot of knowledge working with people that had that different experience.”
The position of firefighter is one we, as the general public, revere with respect and gratitude-the job itself is ever changing and they’re always learning. The knowledge that they’ve gained from working alongside other fire departments will be very beneficial to them as they begin preparations for their own fire season.
There is no rest for the Wichita Falls Fire Department and we encourage you to keep them and all first responders in your prayers and give thanks for those that put their lives on the line, close to home and across the country. †