As an arborist for the City of Cedar Falls, Ryan Rieger has always enjoyed the outdoors. Growing up on a farm on the south side of the city, Rieger spent most of his time in the woods. It was a passion that would eventually lead to not only a future in arboriculture but a commitment to preserving wildlife and forestry across the nation as a wildland firefighter.
"I went to Hawkeye Community College and did the natural resource management program and that is when I started doing prescribed or planned burns," said Rieger. "I studied forestry at Iowa State and continued working in the natural resource field. Prior to my role at the City, I worked in prairie forest restoration and conservation. Cedar Falls has such vast parks and trails that I still get to enjoy working in the conservation field."
It was the dedication to conservation and continued work in prescribed burns that lead to Rieger's decision to become a wildland firefighter.
"There is training required to conduct prescribed burns which is basic Type 2 wildland firefighter training," said Rieger. "This then opens up your ability to build your levels to include additional training on things like chainsaw work. It is the same training required to be a wildland firefighter. I thought it was an opportunity to not only do great work in Cedar Falls but help areas in need across the country."
"Every year I do a refresher training and fitness test. I want to continue doing this because it's good to learn about fire behavior and also doing tree work in the different types of typography."
Being a wildland firefighter means Rieger must be ready to assist when needed and his destination is not always known.
"The Iowa DNR works with the Missouri Department of Conservation and the US Forest Service out of Mark Twain Natural Forest. They build hand crews consisting of about 20 people and assemble engine crews as well. Participants put up their availability and, when needed, are called to duty and dispatched."
"The Natural Preparedness Level is how they analyze what help is required. It is ranked one through five and when it hits a three, it indicates that agencies need additional help controlling wildland fires. Crews also assist with hurricane relief and other natural disaster assistance. Normally you have about a day's notice and it can be unclear where exactly you are going. You could be on your way somewhere and receive a call that you are needed elsewhere. You have to be flexible."
As dry conditions continued across the country this summer, Rieger was called to action in July.
"We had 15 people from Missouri and five people from Iowa on our crew and we ended up working on four different fires," said Rieger on his recent mission. "We started in eastern Montana near Miles City and that was the Whitten fire which was on the northern Cheyenne Native American Reservation. It started from a coal seam and was extremely isolated. It took place in the same area that housed the biggest fire in Montana history so there was a lot of concern about it spreading, but we were able to contain it within two days. After that, we went north to the Bracket fire which was primarily grass. Both of those fires were about 1,200 acres."
"Following those fires, we went west near north of Billings to the Peterson fire which was heavily forested and a little over 4,000 acres. The winds shifted and made it very difficult to fight. The last couple of days we were in Custer National Forest east of Yellowstone."
After 18 days of work fighting fires alongside his crew, Rieger returned from duty.
"Being a wildland firefighter is not what I would call fun exactly, it is hard work," Rieger says. "Above all, though, it feels good to be out there and make a difference. I get to be a civil servant that helps not only my community but forests and wildlife across the nation. Looking back on my experience, these are uncharted places. There are no trails; you are cutting through the brush surrounded by bears and elk. You meet a lot of good people. Then those practices and training help me here as well. It's just a really amazing experience."