By Kiersten Clifford
In October of 1996 wildfires ripped through 35,000 acres of California. Thousands of firefighters scattered across the state to control the fires. Among them was local volunteer firefighter Brian Walther. It wasn’t his first wildfire, nor his last, but it was his biggest.
“There’s a kind of adrenaline that comes with wildfires,” Walther said, sitting up straighter in his chair. “You’re out there, you haven’t slept in about a day and half. You smell like you don’t even know what a shower is. And it’s just pure adrenaline.”
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, on average more than 60,000 wildfires burn over 6 million acres each year. This keeps Walther not only employed but also on his toes.
“You’re focused on this tiny portion of a fire that’s right in front of you and you just have to focus on that bit, not on the other hundreds or thousands of acres of it or whatever,” Walther said. “And it could all change at any second and you have no control over it. I prefer wildfires over structure fires any day.” Wildfires have an excitement to them that structure fires don’t, structure fires can only go as far as a structure. Wildfires can go on forever.
The lure of wildfires means a lot of traveling. He’s fought fires in seven different states, sometimes for long periods of time.
“Yeah, it’s hard to not have him at home,” said Walther’s wife, Christina Walther. “And I’m always worried that he’s going to end up hurt or injured. He loves it though. When he comes back from a fire you can tell just how much he enjoys it.”
Walther has been a firefighter since 1992, starting in his senior year of high school. He joined the Department of Natural Resources, training with them after school. His very first fire happened in May of that year and he says it’s a memory he will never forget.
He came home from school for lunch and his mother told him that the DNR had called wanting him to go out and work with them. He had to beg her to let him skip school and then he headed out to Augusta, WI where an arson was lighting fires.
“I was so excited that I got out of the truck without my hard hat on and got myself yelled at. I don’t think that I was really much help because I was just in awe the whole time.” Walther said.
Walther’s dad, Tom Walther has always been proud of his son for loving something that helps so many people. Though he did take a second to poke some fun at his son. “Brian has always liked fire, so I suppose it is better that he ended up a firefighter instead of an arson.”
When he isn’t at his day job as a construction worker Walther is a volunteer firefighter with the Town of Washington in Eau Claire County. The job involves more than just putting out fires. Frequently, he and his colleagues are called to car accidents. Walther says that car accidents are one of the hardest part of the job.
“There really isn’t anything you can do to prepare yourself for what you see on the scene of an accident,” Walther said. “The things I’ve seen happen to the human body you can’t even imagine. I still have nightmares about some of them.” He says that he is usually good at separating what he sees on the scene of an accident from his everyday life but somethings can’t be unseen.
While car accidents are hard to deal with Walther says the difficult tasks are worth it because of the great men and women he gets to work with After 25 years he has made life-long friends like Jon Standiford.
“Wally [Brian’s nickname], is great a firefighter,” said Standiford, who is a lieutenant for the Town of Washington fire department “He’s always ready to run into a burning building or to do whatever is necessary to get the job done. We’ve got him driving the truck now because he refuses to shave that god-awful beard.”
Walther is OK with driving the truck, though. “I love helping people but I honestly think that my favorite part is turning on the lights and sirens and speeding through red lights,” he said “It’s like every little boy’s dream to run the lights and sirens and I get to do it all the time.”
Walther also works for the DNR, fighting local wildfires on the weekend.
Walther worries that with the warmer weather people want to have fires but says they need to be careful. In 25 years he says that he has seen more fires because of stupid mistakes that people have made than anything else.
“Never leave a fire unattended,” Walther urges. “The wind can change in a second and you’ll lose control of your fire.” Make sure that if you are burning something that you check to make sure that it’s OK to burn at that time and that you have all of the right permits before you burn.
Walther’s hard work and dedication to being a firefighter, even though it’s not a full time job for him, is something that can inspire everyone.