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Ava’s Stan Lovan: 40 Years of Fighting Fires

Doug Berger/Herald Stan Lovan

For over 40 years, Stan Lovan has been traveling throughout the United States to assist firefighting efforts in forests, swamps, cactus, and brush. Lovan estimates he averages between 50 and 60 days of firefighting annually. 

Provided by Stan Lovan

Lovan started traveling to the fires as an employee of the Missouri Department of Conservation. He is now retired from the Conservation Department after 32 years, but continues his firefighting efforts. Along with traveling to the fires as part of a Conservation Department crew, he worked as contractor at the fires through a nationwide system coordinated by the U.S. Forest Service. 

Today he works with the Northern Rockies National Type 1 Incident Management Team out of Montana. The type 1 incident management teams are made up of persons with the most experience. The teams have members from all over the country. 

Even before starting as a full-time employee of the Department of Conservation, Lovan was involved in firefighting efforts. He explained that a tower man was needed at the Twin Knobs tower, and he started out in a temporary position. He worked at that for two fire seasons, before moving to Ava for a full time position in the forestry division of the department. It was the division that had firefighting as one of its responsibilities.

“It was about 1974, that they started putting teams together, crews to go out of state. Our first assignment was in Minnesota. Minnesota had never called for out of state help, no one had, it was all new, so we didn’t know what we were doing for sure and they didn’t know either. We went up to Minnesota on an old charter plane that we didn’t think would make it, and we met with the district ranger. We had several fires, and we told him what we could do and how we did it. They were well pleased and we started doing it over the whole country. Then the whole country started doing this, where they were sharing resources, and it’s blossomed out to 30,000 people,” Lovan stated.

“I went more than anybody with the Department of Conservation, because I didn’t take my vacation during fire season. It’s not for everybody. Some people would go and couldn’t wait to get home and would never go again,” he said.

Lovan indicated there were 20 people on the first Missouri team broken into three squads. The incident management team he works with today has approximately 56 core people, but it may be managing thousands of people at a fire, along with the needed equipment.

Provided by Stan Lovan

Today, Lovan is a safety officer with the team out of Montana.

“I came from the back of the crew with my head down, cutting line,” he explained. He explained that he had to qualify and be certified for each step up.

“When you go in, you can’t just say I can do that. They give you a task book to learn from and then they evaluate you. I’ve gone through a knee-high stack of task books,” he laughed.

Prior to joining the incident management team, Lovan had worked as a “single resource.” He would travel on his own, and when he got there, didn’t know who he was working for.

The U.S. Forest Service works with the group coordinating these nationwide shared resource firefighting efforts, and pays many of these workers.

“We have a dispatch center out of Rolla. There are dispatch centers all over the United States. The dispatch center keeps track of your qualifications in the fire system – like if you are task force leader. Then when somebody, say in northern Oregon, needs task force leaders they search the system, find Stan Lovan in Missouri, and call and ask if he is available. They order him up and you don’t go anywhere without that order. The order has fire, the fire number, and you don’t exist without that number. You have to bring your credentials and papers with you. It’s set up and runs like a well-oiled machine,” he indicated.

As a single resource, Lovan would often end up working with the Northern Rockies National Incident Management Team – mostly at the division level.

“After so many times of that, they said, why don’t you come work for us? I said well I’ve never thought about that, I’ve always been a lone wolf out there, and they said, why don’t you give it a try? I’ve been with them ever since – about 10 years. I came in at the division level, then moved up. There is a core of 56 people. Most of them aren’t firefighters. They are logistics people, finance people, public information officers, and the list goes on,” he explained.

“Most of the time we are in remote places. We have people who  will come in and set up a meadow, six acres, and in 48 hours there will be big brown yurts, generators, telephones, showers, wash stations, and caterers. They buy water by the 18 wheeler loads. In three or four days they’ll have a town of 1,500 to 2000 people with a main street running through it. We do our job, but we couldn’t do our job if they didn’t do their job,” Lovan said.

He pointed out that he also likes this efficiency in working with the team in relationship to the call up for a fire.

“I could be sitting at home and get a call saying the team is being ordered up. Within an hour I have my orders including my flight itinerary. When I get to my destination there will be a vehicle ready to go with my name on it, so I’m ready to go.

I work in Safety, directly under the Incident Commander, because the only people that put fires out are Operations, Air Support Operations and Safety,” Lovan said.

“Our job is putting the fire out and getting the people back home safely. There is no fire worth a life, and we’re not going to be doing crazy stuff and getting somebody killed.” Lovan explained.

Provided by Stan Lovan

“I work for the Lead Safety. Every division has a safety if we can get them – but we’re getting so many fires now, we can’t always get  them. This last time, I was the in-between for the incident command post and all safeties on the line. I was checking on them, seeing what they were doing, listening to their plans about where they’re going with their lines and such.” he stated.

“We keep people from being placed where they shouldn’t be. We set up LCES (lookouts, communication, escape routes and safety zones). We try to put one of our better firefighters up on a high point. He‘ll use binoculars to watch the weather and look out for changes others might not be able to see.”

Lovan explained that it is important for the persons on the line to know where the escape routes and safety zones are.

“If I put on my gear and I walk up on the line in the mountain somewhere. I’ll ask a crew member where the escape route is. If you get somebody that says I don’t know, that’s not good.”

“A safety zone is not a place you go to deploy (a personal fire shelter). There is a big difference between deployment and safety zone. A safety zone is a place where you can stand upright and watch the fire go around you and you don’t have to deploy your fire shelter. When you deploy your fire shelter, you’re in dire straits. People live through them, but when you get under there, it’s usually bad news, so we just don’t go around deploying. If there’s not a natural safety zone, we’ll take dozers, make one, and make sure everyone knows where it is,” Lovan said.

Improvements in safety have been a big change over the years Lovan explained.

“When I started we didn’t have safety officers. We had an old fire shelter they invented that was worth nothing. We used it to hang a canteen on.”

“I can remember being on a fire in Idaho. I was on a hand crew and we were down in a gulley. The wind would change and we had to run from it, and we’d go back in and have to run from it again and then go back in. We wouldn’t put people in there now. We’d just go around it. Nobody got hurt, but they could have.”

Lovan indicated that they have come a long way in taking care of the firefighters in other ways also.

“They used to call it coyoting. They would drop us out of helicopters and we would be at the fire line all day. Then they’d find us with the helicopter, drop us some paper sleeping bags, food, and water. We’d lay down and sleep right there on the fire line. We’d do that about three days in a row and then they’d come get us with a helicopter. We don’t do that anymore,” Lovan stated.

Cell phones have been another positive change.

“Before cell phones, they would put a couple old telephones on a table and you had five minutes. People lined up and if you went  over five minutes people were tapping you on the shoulder. If you called and your wife didn’t answer, you just stood there an hour for no reason. Now, every person here can take a break, find cell coverage, and call home. People back home need  the information,” Lovan said.

Provided by Stan Lovan

Lovan explained another change is the need for structure protection.

“We spend so much time in structure protection, that we didn’t use to have to do,” he said. 

He pointed out that one of the signs of increased structure protection is when you see big “type 2” city fire trucks on television as part of firefighting efforts.

“Our firefighting trucks are smaller type 6s. They are one ton duallys with 250 gallons of water on them and they’re fast and can get around. You’ve got to watch those big ones. You have to keep them on roads they can drive on. You can’t get them up on mountain trails. We used to go to California and just put the fire out because there wasn’t anybody out there. Now thousands of people live in those mountains, and they build their houses on little trails. They don’t take out the woods around them. The houses may be wood with wood shake shingles,” he stated.

“We have a gentleman, who has been with this team for 18 years. He’s a structure protection specialist. While we’re setting up the main fire and fighting it, he and his team are out and evaluating every single house, deciding what it will take to save it. We don’t stand there. We’ll do sprinkler systems, clean brush out, etc. But when the fire comes, we’ll be gone, and the big engines will come in where they can attend to the houses,” he explained.

At his last fire, the Slater fire in Oregon and parts of California they had engines come in from Canada, Idaho, Colorado, and Montana.

“Those engines would drive thousands of miles to get there,” he said.

“The last fire started in northern California at Happy Camp and it raged uphill into Oregon. When we got there, we were taking over what was in Oregon. After a week and half, CalFire secured the California part and left. We took the whole thing over after that.”

“California has an army of fire fighters. If they are calling us in,  they are hurting,” Lovan said.

“We had a plane go up and scale the fire. On the Slater fire we had 250 miles of fire line.”

There has also been changes in the source of personnel to help fight the fires.

Lovan was involved in the training of military personnel based out of a Yakima, WA, base in 1994.

“The military had never been on the fire line. We had used them for transport and they decided it was getting so bad they would train the military. 20 of us converged at the big military base in Yakima and trained the military. We took 600 troops and convoyed. For every firefighter there were two or three soldiers. We were quite the sight when we rolled into that little community,” Lovan related.

Three years ago, he was near the same location he had been with the military troops. 

“People will ask – haven’t you burned it all? And I’ll explain that out there if you burn a million acres, it’s still just a spot. You won’t ever reach the point of everything being burned because it will burn again. It will grow up in brush, and may even burn faster and hotter,” he stated.

“I was on the Biscuit fire in 2002 out of Grants Pass and here I was again in Grants Pass. I’ve been to the same places a lot of times. The Biscuit fire burned 530,000 acres, most of it was timber. That’s the biggest one I’ve ever been on. I’ve been on lots 200,000 to 300,000 acre fires,” Lovan said.

“Up until this year, 99 percent of the fires out west are set by accidental electric line breaks or lightning. But now Oregon has had 134 fires and most of them were set intentionally. You can’t have that out there. It’s too volatile. Here we have very few days where fire can burn until unstoppable and kill people. You can get out of the way or see it coming, but out there, you’ve got so many places you will kill people,” he added. 

“We lost 240 structures on the Slater fire near Happy Camp, California,” he said.

“I wanted to see the results of the fire from a safety point, so I drove down to the area where the fire started, and that fire came up that valley. It was so hot it had melted metal. It burned wood out of bridges that had no vegetation around them and left the structure of metal and concrete. It was an inferno,” he said.

Lovan stated that another change he’s witnessed is the inclusion of more agencies in the crews. It used to be strictly full-time Conservation Department personnel from the forestry division coming from Missouri. Now it includes people from other parts of the Conservation Department. Nation-wide, there are firefighters from more public agencies, fire departments, along with private contract crews.

“If we have somebody here in Ava on the fire department and they would like to go out on a hand crew, they would have to take classes and get qualified and they could have a chance to go out on a hand crew,” Lovan said.

Women have also become an important part of the front line firefighting efforts.

“There are lots of women on the hot shot crews. We don’t even think anything about it now. They are fully accepted,” Lovan said.

Lovan’s out of state firefighting has not been limited to western timber fires. 

“I’ve been to Virginia to the Great Dismal Swamp twice. It got dry and caught fire. It was in peat, where it had dried out and anything that burned fell over. It burned like crazy then after the fire it was doubly dangerous because everything was going to fall down. 

I went into the Okefenokee (in Georgia) twice. It’s crazy the way it burns down there. The flat ground looks green and everything grows with a waxy finish on the leaves. In a Palmetto clump, one of the dead ones will burn off and you’ll see this little torch in the air. You hope it goes out before it hits the ground, but some don’t. You can have five dozers working thinking you are doing a good job and a mile away you’ve got another one,” he stated.

“This year I went to Arizona to the Bush fire. You couldn’t put people up in there in those mountains. It was cactus, some scruffy brush and grass. If you put crews up in there, they couldn’t make a line fast enough or good enough to hold. They backed off and we closed Interstate 87 for a week and burned out 30 miles along the interstate,” he stated.

Lovan said they used another highway, a river and reservoirs as fire breaks and burned out approximately 130,000 acres, and were home in a week. He said that many grass fires are like that. He relates that he was on a fire in Nevada, involving approximately 300,000 acres. You couldn’t catch it, and you couldn’t get enough people on it, but the wind let up and three days later, you’re going home, he explained.

“The big timber fires take a lot longer to put out with a tremendous amount of mop up, and exposure to more danger, but that’s what we’re usually on,” he said.

Lovan isn’t thinking about giving up his firefighting work yet.

“This team I’m on, they keep ribbing me all the time about when are you going to quit? How long you going to do this? I said, well, I’ll know, but it’s not now. Before we left the last fire we got to talking about big fires. The biggest fire we ever had. They talk about getting bigger and bigger and weather, and climate change and all this. The biggest fire we ever had was in 1910. In was in Minnesota, Wisconsin country up there and they don’t know how many millions of acres it did burn. And they said, Stan, I’m sure you were there. They tell me I’m one of the older ones in the United States,” he laughed.

“I’m motivated to keep myself in shape so I can do it. It gives me a goal to work for, and I try to take care of myself, and I still workout, just so I can do this. I love the challenge. Sometimes it gets pretty tough, but I really like the challenge and I like being a part of it. I’ve been a part of it so long. I’m really afraid of what will happen to me when I do have to finally quit, and there’s a time. There is a time for everything. I’m 68 years old. It’s a young man’s game. But I’m not digging fire lines. I have a vehicle and I go out and talk to people. I’ve not done that (dig fire lines) for years.” he said.