TELLER COUNTY, Colo. — Two teens have been on the front lines helping fight the large wildfires in New Mexico, and they are proving age is just a number when it comes to protecting communities.
Julie Kisseberth and Hunter Sandborn are both 18 years old, and the two teens graduated last week from Cripple Creek Junior Senior High School in Colorado.
Kisseberth was deployed to New Mexico from late April to early May, and her crew helped to fight the Cerro Pelado Fire in New Mexico for 14 days.
“It was really scary, having live fire on both sides of us is pretty scary,” said Kisseberth. “We were just digging lines, putting fire on the ground, watching fires, and chasing hot spots for 14 days straight.”
Meanwhile, Sandborn is currently fighting fires in New Mexico. But he also helped firefighters during the High Park Fire in Teller County. That fire burned more than 1,500 acres.
“We dig line, we fight the fire, we start the burns to create a black area, we just do a lot of everything,” said Sandborn.
“At the High Park Fire, we were there for 15 hours, mainly just watching and burning the side, making sure it doesn’t spread and jump the canyon we were in.”
Sandborn says, during the High Park Fire, he also helped to protect homes, something he’s also doing in New Mexico right now.
“It means a lot. Just going out and protecting all these people's homes, making sure they have somewhere to go back to once it's all over, it’s really nice and it makes me feel good.”
It's all thanks to a fire science program they were a part of in high school. Students began their learning and training at the beginning of the school year.
“We were learning working in the bunker gear, all of our tools, all the engines and all the tactics and strategies we had to go through to fight a structure fire,” said Sandborn.
That training is now allowing them to protect their own community and communities in New Mexico.
“It’s a good feeling once you save a home. When I was on that fire, no structures were lost, and part of that was because of my work, so that's really cool to be a part of” said Kisseberth.
Now that they're graduated, fighting wildfires is what they want to continue doing.
“Hopefully I can become an engine boss within the next five years or so. Being a firefighter is just going to be my whole life,” said Sandborn.
After her next deployment to New Mexico, Kisseberth wants to become an EMT or get her pilots license, so she can help fight wildfires from above.
“What they always tell me is that you're a student of fire always. So I’m always going to be a student, always learning. always doing new things, which is exciting,” said Kisseberth.
Annie Durham, the CTE director for Cripple Creek School District, said the fire science program is made possible thanks to the Rise Grant from Governor Jared Polis’ office back in January 2021. It creates several career pathways where students can get one industry certification, including fire. The first semester consists of textbook work, while the second is more hands-on practical training.
Durham says three students will be going into the fire science program next school year, but the first year has already been a success with Kisseberth and Sandborn.
“To have two of our students already fighting fires, it’s very exciting to know that great things can come from rural communities,” said Durham. “I think that’s one of the biggest messages, is that every single student who walks in our building is capable of something extraordinary.”
Sandborn is currently in New Mexico, and Kisseberth will return in mid-June. The length of their deployment is unknown, but now that they are high school graduates, they do have more free time and will be working throughout the summer to fight wildfires.
This story was first reported by Ashley Portillo at KOAA in Colorado Springs, Colo.