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Nov 06
From Mullen to Midas - Sandhills native makes a living fighting wildland fires

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Duell Puttergill, of Tryon, (right) prepares for confined space rescue training as part of the Fire Science Technology program at Mid-Plains Community College. Puttergill graduated from MPCC in 2016 and now works for the Bureau of Land Management putting out wildland fires.

There is no "average day" in Duell Puttergill's line of work. 

That's what he loves about it. 

The McPherson County native spends his summers battling wildland fires in Midas, Nevada. It's a career fueled by adrenaline and constantly changing scenarios, often dangerous ones, but always with an important task at hand – to contain and extinguish wildfires before they threaten lives or personal property. 

His preparation for the job began when he was a child – he just didn't know it at the time. 

"I went on my first fire call with my dad when I was probably about 8-years-old," said Puttergill. "I thought it was cool, but to me, it was just part of living in the Nebraska Sandhills. It's so remote and far between stations there that when a fire breaks out on a rancher's land, all the neighbors respond." 

Puttergill helped extinguish numerous prairie fires throughout his teen years, but becoming a firefighter professionally, never crossed his mind. 

"Because all the firefighters I knew were volunteers, I didn't think of firefighting as a viable career," Puttergill said. "I actually didn't know what I was going to do when I graduated from high school." 

Puttergill credits his shop teacher at Mullen High School, Nathan Haman, for steering him toward his current profession.    

"He asked me if I had ever thought about firefighting, and I said, 'No.' He was going through some training as a volunteer and encouraged me to tag along," said Puttergill. "I really enjoyed it, but because I was only 17 at the time, I couldn't get hired on with a department. I decided to study Fire Science Technology at Mid-Plains Community College until I could." 

MPCC provided him with the foundation for what he does today. Three of the classes he took are required to obtain a "red card," an Incident Qualification Card linked to a national training and qualification database. It indicates what jobs a cardholder can assume. 

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Puttergill (Photo credit Alecia Amber Photography)

After graduating from MPCC in 2016, Puttergill hired on as a firefighter for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was stationed at the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge near Valentine before taking his current position with the Bureau of Land Management. 

Puttergill is currently an engine operator, meaning he drives the trucks and starts the pumps used to fight wildland fires. He was on the scene for two fires that drew national attention this year: the Martin Fire, which burned 435,569 acres or 680 square miles, and the South Sugarloaf Fire, which destroyed 233,462 acres.

The Martin Fire was determined to be human-caused, and there was concern over efforts to contain it because of a pipeline carrying natural gas through the area. The Sugarloaf Fire is thought to have been caused by lightning. 

"The way fires are fought differs quite a bit between Nevada and what I was used to in Nebraska," said Puttergill. "They use aircraft a lot more in Nevada and, in timber areas, will send in a 20-person crew to create a firebreak using handsaws and a trench." 

At his job, firefighters can work two hours for every hour they sleep. He typically works a 16-hour shift then sleeps eight hours. 

"It's not for everyone, but I really like it," said Puttergill. "I enjoy going into places most people never get to see." 

He's currently a seasonal employee, which allows him to return to Nebraska during the winter months and help out on the family ranch. 

Once he gets a permanent position he will be eligible for full benefits from the government, however, it's the security he's the most excited about. 

"Not a lot of people go into wildland firefighting, and there are always openings, so it's very easy to get a job," said Puttergill. "Those who are in this profession can pretty much take or refuse any position they want or ask for a transfer if they want to move around. The best part is that fighting fires is a job no machine will ever replace." 

More information about wildland firefighting can be found at: https://www.fws.gov/fire/downloads/wfjobdesc.pdf. More information about the Fire Science Technology program at MPCC is available at mpcc.edu

Heather Johnson
Area Communications Specialist

Heather produces and distributes press releases for the college. She began work at MPCC in 2014. Prior to that, she spent five years as the news director/web manager for Eagle Radio in North Platte. From 2009-2014 she worked as a reporter/photographer for The North Platte Telegraph. Heather has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Chadron State College.

Brent L. Cobb
McCook Community College News Bureau Coordinator​​​