Firefighter battles job’s risks with humor

By MORGAN SOLOMON/Montana State News

Daniel Sullivan rounded the corner inside Bridger Brewery, nonchalantly dragging his dirty tennis sneakers and the bottom of his Carharts across the floor. He wore the same Montana State baseball cap he wore every day, but he had on a new pair of glasses.

Wildlands firefighter Daniel Sullivan takes a breather while on the fire lines.
Wildlands firefighter Daniel Sullivan takes a breather while on the fire lines.

Waving fanatically with both hands in greeting he said, “They’re like sunglasses and glasses in one, that’s why they’re so big.”

His goofy smile and wild eyes seemed like they could egg whoever he was talking to burst out in laughter for no apparent reason.

Sullivan, who is called Sully by all his peers, parents included, sat down and ordered an IPA. Sullivan is a recent graduate of Montana State University and a returning firefighter. Not an urban fire fighter, but a wildland firefighter. Sullivan has been working as wildland firefighter for four years, since he was 18 years old.

“I was working my old job at Safeway,” he said, “and my friends came in and told me what they were doing for the summer. I looked at my job around me and decided firefighting sounded a lot better.”

He signed up and after a few persistent calls, he got the job.

“I hate when he leaves, because I worry so much. But I know he loves it.  At this time in our lives we have to do what makes us happy,” said Aubrey Power, Sullivan’s girlfriend . Sullivan and Power have been dating for over a year now.

“The worst was when I got word of the Arizona tragedy last summer, where 19 guys died,” Power said. “I checked my phone probably a hundred times that day.”

Sullivan had been sent to Arizona for additional help on the fires in June of 2013, along with several other teams from around the country.

“I had worked with those guys who died on the fire a few days before it happened on a separate fire. We worked out together, too…. I was in total disbelief for at least three hours.”

Yet, this hasn’t changed how Sullivan views firefighting. According to him, he is no more afraid or skeptical than he was before it happened.

“They call it the Swiss cheese effect. All that could have gone wrong did,” Sullivan said. It slipped through the holes. You just have to trust the guys your with.”

Sullivan knows that it could happen to him, but it still doesn’t stop him from continuing to return to the field this summer.

“It’s addicting. It’s like being on a sports team. You get all pumped up when you get called onto a fire. It’s like….YEAH, LETS GO!”

However, there are times that Sullivan questions the safety of his own life and his teammates. Sullivan’s first summer on the job they were called to bring supplies for the teams that were working on a fire near Helena. The fire was burning down a steep mountain side and was moving slow. Sullivan and his wildland mateswere carrying supplies along a ravine between two mountains.

“Once the fire hits the bottom of that ravine it was going to sweep right up the side of the other mountain. Fire travels faster uphill. The wind picked up…. It was sketchy, for sure.”

It wasn’t until later that night that he realized the danger they were in when he overheard his superiors talking about their luck.

“You have to know what you’re getting into. That day, I didn’t.”

Besides pulling on their serious pants when they get called to a fire, these boys and girls do a lot of waiting. To pass the time away, Sullivan and his team would play “stupid flip.”

“You flip a coin, tails your out, head’s your still in. Whoever is the last one remaining is named ‘the stupid’ and you can make them do literally anything…. well anything within reason,” he chuckled setting his beer down. One guy who lost had to sit in the back seat with a blind-fold on and listen to the same song on repeat on his iPod. “It must have been torture for him. It looked like it, ha!”

When asked about his team dynamics and where he fell into the mix, he scoffed, “Oh, I am definitely the joker. I like to egg people on. It makes the job that much more fun and easier.”

Outside of his fire career, Sullivan still is considered the jokester. “He’s such a little shit, but for real, he’s probably one of the funnier people I know,” Sullivan’s friend Sarah Plath stated.

Power said she and Sullivan met in a class at Montana State University. “… [B]ut the first time we hung out outside of class my friend and I went to meet him at a bar. On our way there, there was a guy walking towards us in a Nicki Minaj costume. She asked me ‘Who’s that?’ and I said ‘That’s him!’”

Although, “sarcastic,” “jokester” and “happy-go-lucky” are some of the first words that come out of Sullivan’s friends’ mouth when asked who Sullivan is, it is surely to be followed with genuine, caring and real. Sullivan’s younger brother Cormac “Mac,” was asked to match Sullivan with one word. He simply stated, “compassionate”.

“It takes a lot for Sullivan to get angry,” Poster said describing a trip to Forest Service cabin they got their car stuck deep in the snow.

“It was about two hours into our efforts to get the car out. And he grabs a towel all frustrated and shakes it and the snow flies off of it all over his face and down his jacket and we both just looked at each other – I was afraid that was going to put him over the edge and he would explode – but he just starts laughing! We ended up eating Oreos, drinking beer for dinner and staying the night in my car. That was the night I knew I loved him.”

Sullivan grew up in Missoula with most of his relatives living in Montana. With a younger brother and sister, Sullivan also has an extensive family even he has a hard time keeping track of.

“I have so many cousins in Bozeman, especially. Just the other day, I met one of them that I never knew was my cousin. We are about the same age.”

Sullivan’s childhood was like many other kids life in Montana. Outdoors, cross country, hockey, skiing, and “raising hell” in school. “We had a different theme for most of days that we had cross country meets. We would dress up in that theme for school. Some of the things I wore … good God!”

One of the hardest times for Sullivan was when he broke his neck falling out of a tree two years ago. He was unable to continue his job in the field, and was forced to stay inside doing computer work and paper work.

“It was tortuous. The worst was when the doctors cleared me to go out for the rest of the fire season in August, and my boss told me that he wouldn’t let me. Looking back it was for the better, but I was really down at the time.”

Of course, when asked how he fell out of the tree, he mischievously grinned. “Most people don’t know this, but I can out-drink anyone.” And he laughed whole-heartedly.

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