For One Washington Company, Firefighting Is A Family Affair

Willy (left), Johnnie, and Bill Duguay fight fires with their family-run company Methow River Wildfire. Bill started the company in 2004 with one engine and has since expanded to seven trucks. JENNIFER DUGUAY
Willy (left), Johnnie, and Bill Duguay fight fires with their family-run company Methow River Wildfire. Bill started the company in 2004 with one engine and has since expanded to seven trucks. JENNIFER DUGUAY

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Wildland firefighters are a tight-knit group. After years of fighting fires together in the remote wilderness and on the edges of suburbia, you get to know a lot of people. And for one fire company in Washington’s Methow Valley, the bond is even stronger.

All of the Duguay family — Mom and Dad, Jennifer and Bill, and their children, Willy and Johnnie — have their hands in their family-run company: Methow River Wildfire.

“It’s been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember,” Johnnie said. “Obviously there are challenging parts. It gets exhausting mentally and physically, but I always knew I was going to do it because it was a part of the family.”

Johnnie Duguay said she remembers her dad bringing home camp food — firefighters have to eat a ton of calories. He’d eat the healthy stuff and pack the fun snacks home for the kids, things like fritos, oreos, chips, and dried bananas.

“The dried bananas never got eaten,” Willy Duguay joked.

There was the beard Bill grew one summer, after being away for a couple weeks.

“I thought it was super weird,” Willy said. “He normally doesn’t have facial hair, and then, [it was] like, woah.”

But most of all the kids remember the excitement around the house.

“We could feel his excitement when he got the call and was packing up, getting ready to go,” Johnnie said.”We’d be running around the house trying to help him, probably getting in the way.”

It’s an excitement that still builds around the Duguay house — almost 20 years later.

And this year, that excitement was delayed until this month. The company helped fight the Range 12 Fire south of Yakima and the Black Rock Road fire in Odessa.

Fighting all of these fires brings the family close together. The business gives them purpose and a community of firefighters they can rely on.

Their cell phones stay glued to their sides, in case they get a call from an interagency dispatch. They jumped when a phone rang unexpectedly, joking: “Dispatch!”

Jennifer answers. It’s one of their crew members instead.

“It’s kind of weird to hope for a good or bad fire season,” Jennifer said.

Johnnie interjected, “We need fires. We’re in an area that needs to periodically burn for our ecosystem. We need to work for the economy because it’s such a big industry here, but ideally it’s not somewhere where it threatens homes and lives.”

There are private fire companies all throughout Washington’s Methow Valley. Bill started his business in 2004 with one truck. He’s since expanded to seven, sneaking in an engine here and there like a new toy.

Firefighting can be backbreaking, hot labor. But it’s demands also have perks Bill and the kids enjoy: being paid to hike, seeing some beautiful backcountry, making new friends. They said the hero thing is not really something they think much about.

“Most firefighters are regular people,” Bill said. “This just happens to be their gig.”

A gig that has given Willy more confidence and has taught Johnnie life skills.

“I think it’s important that people do physical labor in their lives,” Johnnie said. “I’m so happy I’ve had the chance to be around trucks, pumps, tools, and chainsaws. I’m not an inherently mechanical or practical person — I’ve learned it through firefighting. I feel really capable because I’ve had this experience.”

And Willy? He says he’s started thinking about taking on the family business — years later, when his dad retires. It’s just a thought for now, but one that’s blossoming as the fire seasons move along.

Copyright 2016 Northwest Public Broadcasting

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