Real World Wittenberg: Fighting Fire with Fire
Life after a degree from Wittenberg isn’t always necessarily followed by an average nine
to five job. At least that wasn’t the case for John Plisga, a class of 2013 graduate who
now spends his days fighting wildfires in Alaska. “Money and not getting tied down in
any career right away got me into this,” he said, “I’m really just doing this to pay off
student loans, maybe travel during the off season.”
And the money is good during the periods that Plisga spends in the field. He now
regularly works 16 hour days for as long as 3 weeks, working as part of a wildland fire
handcrew that serves as a feeder crew to the Alaskan hotshots, the state’s most
renowned group of firefighters. When the weather gets warm, and firefighters like Plisga
get some time off work, they get paid large amounts of money for their long hours of
work over a short period of time. “It’s great for the bank account” he joked “but not so
much for the mind, body, soul, relationships or anything else.”
Before being able to serve on his fire handcrew, Plisga was required to complete
two weeks of rigorous training. Some of his skills, such as the use of a chainsaw, he
had to learn on the job as an active member of the handcrew. The training was arduous,
but well worth the job’s day to day experiences in the untamed wilderness of Alaska.
“We get a lot of helicopter and prop engine airplane rides” Plisga said.
Plisga and his team were also brought in to help fight the enormous rim fire that
ravaged Yosemite national park earlier last month. His team was required to help stop
the fire by laying down a back burn, which involved starting small controlled fires to
keep the wild fire contained to a specific area. “We laid down strips of flame and then
backed out and watched as these 100-200 foot trees burned their way to the big fires
perimeter” Plisga recalls. His job has the potential to be dangerous, and falling trees
have caused life threatening burns and injuries before. But Plisga has never felt
particularly unsafe. “Wildland fire is not all that dangerous,” he said “you do have to
worry about getting burned, but you always have a lot of people looking out for you.”
In terms of long term goals, Plisga plans to continue fighting fires for only a few
years before going to graduate school and eventually pursuing a career in publishing.
“In my dreams I work for DC comics,” he said, “working in Alaska is working in Alaska.
That’s about it.”
As for his memories of Wittenberg, Plisga, like so many other graduates, misses
the strong sense of community on campus. “I miss living in a community surrounded by
a bunch of my peers and friends. You never really get to do that again, and it’s truly
something special” he said. Plisga is just one shining example of the many unique
students that come to Wittenberg, and the many unique things they do when they leave.