Get to know... Robert Yost
Updated 11:19 am, Friday, September 23, 2016
WESTPORT — While fighting wildfires in the western United States, Westport Assistant Fire Chief Robert Yost was the new kid on the crew.
While he has been working as a firefighter in Westport for nearly three decades, it was Yost’s first deployment to help manage a wildfire.
“I felt like a kid again,” he said. “I had to almost remind myself I’m 51 years old because I was the new guy.”
Yost returned last week from a deployment to help fight wildfires in northwestern Wyoming and eastern Idaho. Along with a fellow Westport assistant chief, Michael Kronick, Yost worked to manage the Black Fire and Carrot Fire for 14 days with the Connecticut Interstate Fire Crew.
After more than 28 years with Westport Fire, Yost became certified to fight wildfires last year.
“Mostly my reason for getting involved was the wildland firefighting community wrote the book on Incident Command,” Yost said. “Some of those larger fires where you’re talking thousands of firefighters, helicopters, aircraft, all those resources would be a nightmare to manage without a system in place.”
The Incident Command System arose to serve that purpose and the rest of the country is now using the same or a similar method for emergency response, Yost said.
“Seeing that and using that here in Westport during Hurricanes Irene and Sandy gave me a real appreciation for the system and what was explained to me is you really can’t comprehend it until you actually experience it,” he said. “So I wanted to go out there and experience being part of that system firsthand.”
Yost got the call; he had an assignment with a couple days of notice to pack and prepare. He met up with the state’s 20-person fire crew in Marlborough on the morning of Aug. 27 to begin the trip out to Idaho.
Yost used vacation and his own time to make the 19-day trip from Aug. 27 until Sept. 14. The Connecticut crew’s first four-day stop was the Black Fire, a roughly 770-acre wildfire about 12 miles northwest of Swan Valley, Idaho. The team then moved onto the Carrot Fire for 10 days. The roughly 606-acre wildfire is an Idaho-managed fire in northwestern Wyoming.
Wildfire and structural firefighting require different approaches, Yost said. In the wilderness, water might not be available, so a significant portion of fighting a wildfire involves removing its fuel and creating firebreaks.
The Connecticut crew was “a real eclectic mix,” Yost said, including firefighters, wildlife biologists, arborists and parks specialists. The team worked 16-hour days and camped in a field at a ranger station during their two-week stay. Because the fires were managed, the crew’s goal was not to put them out.
“The Forest Service has recognized that fires are a natural process,” Yost said. “They’ve been occurring since time began and by actually putting out all the fires we’re creating a disservice where fuels grow too much and then you get these mega-fires. And then there’s certain plants and seedlings that regenerate after a fire, so it’s recognized to be a natural process.”
Both the Black and Carrot Fires began naturally from lighting strikes. Instead of extinguishing them, the crew worked to ensure they did not go in the direction of populated areas. For the Black Fire, the goal was to keep it from moving toward a recreational area with camping, horseback riding and ranches.
Even when the work involved digging all day to create firebreaks, the natural beauty of the area and fellow crew members made the experience interesting for Yost.
“You’re out in the middle of this gorgeous country and dramatic mountains and everything like that,” he said. “It never felt monotonous and you never felt bored. The people you’re with are so much fun. I’ve never worked so hard yet laughed so hard at the same time.”
The crew did not camp at the Carrot Fire and instead had to drive an hour and a half to and from the site because of grizzly and black bears in the area. The wildlife experience — seeing buffalo and moose and hearing coyotes howl at night — also stuck with Yost.
He said the deployment of two Westport firefighters also brings a benefit back to the department for Incident Command scenarios and he hopes to work further on the town’s system. The experience reinforced his belief in the importance of physical fitness in firefighting as well. He said he was better prepared for the physically-demanding, “grueling” workdays thanks to Westport’s physical fitness program.
Yost started out as a firefighter working part-time in Mansfield during college. After he graduated, they hired him full-time and a year later — in April of 1988 — he transferred to Westport. He became an administrative assistant chief in 2009 after two years as a shift commander. The Milford resident grew up in Norwalk, where his father was the fire chief.
The state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection keeps a roster of local personnel certified for wildfire firefighting. Yost hopes to stay on the roster and possibly deploy again in the future. To do so requires annual training and regular physical fitness testing, he said.