When Nathaniel Valenti, 20, missed his first day of classes at Marymount University this year, he had a good excuse — he was fighting wildfires.
The junior criminal justice major from Dover, Delaware, spent 14 days as a part-time federal employee, getting close to the big fires that have been raging in the west all summer. One fire he helped to contain had burned 8,700 acres near Toston, Montana.
“The first night we were holding the line and there were trees torching 20 or 30 feet away from me,” Valenti said. “That’s when the entire tree just goes up in flames, with really high flames and intense heat.”
That became a normal sight for him.
After completing a 40-hour firefighting course at West Virginia University last summer, Valenti spent the end of this summer enduring thick smoke and 90-degree weather while in firefighting gear, including a helmet, goggles and fire-retardant clothing.
Valenti had no firefighting experience before this summer, but he did have a role model in the profession. His father, Michael Valenti, is the state forester of Delaware and has been fighting fires in the western states most summers since 1998. This summer, the younger Valenti went with his dad, who was the chief of their 20-man crew.
“I was very happy the planets aligned so that we could do this together,” the elder Valenti said.
The group slept in tents as far as 15 miles from the flames, to avoid the smoke. Each morning they drove as close as they could before hiking to the fire lines. They didn’t leave the fireground all day, so everyone, including rookie Valenti, carried 25-pound packs that included an emergency fire shelter, food and more than a gallon of water.
“Once you go out for the day, you can’t get water anywhere else,” Valenti said. “So in addition to what you carry, you drink a lot in the morning and in the evening.”
Although he was new to firefighting, Valenti is not new to camping and being outdoors. He has gone on extended 14-day backpacking and trips with his Boy Scout troops. Valenti, his three brothers and father are all Eagle Scouts.
Michael Valenti said this has been an exceptionally bad year for wildfires and the need for firefighters is high. He urged anyone who is interested to go to their state’s department of forestry for more information on how to get involved.
One person he doesn’t have to convince is his son.
“Growing up on the East Coast I never really understood the impact these fires can have on communities and towns — even entire states,” Nathaniel Valenti said. “I was glad to be able to go out there and make a difference. Whenever we had a reason to be in towns, people would come out and thank us. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do it again next year.”