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Hansville firefighter's a globetrotter, too

Erv Gasser, a firefighter from Hansville, recently returned from a firefighting trip in Australia. - Courtesy photo
Erv Gasser, a firefighter from Hansville, recently returned from a firefighting trip in Australia.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

HANSVILLE — Erv Gasser has one of the most unique and possibly interesting jobs in the nation.

He knows that red is the hottest color ash and if the ash after a fire is red, it means the soil’s seed bank is probably killed.

Gasser has been a wildland firefighter since 1979 and currently serves as the National Park Service’s Regional Integrated Pest Management coordinator, Hazard Tree Program manager and assists the NPS in developing general management plans.

But Gasser does even more than that. Just last month he was in Australia, foraging around the backcountry to help Australian firefighting agencies determine the aftermath of a fire and how that might negatively impact the environment and structures.

“I received a call on a Wednesday, Feb. 11, and flew out two days later,” Gasser recalled.

He went to Australia as part of a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team.

The United States is home to two BAER teams that are comprised of interagency specialists from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and the Forest Service.

These two teams work with government agencies, nationally and internationally, to analyze post-fire effects (like floods, erosion and destroyed soil) that may threaten wildlife, habitat or structures.

They also fight fires.

Each team has about 26 members who live throughout the United States and they’re the only teams of their kind in the world.

Gasser, a Hansville resident, manages both and leads one, a post he’s held since 1995. The other team is led by Carolyn Napper, who works for the Forest Service.

The fire Gasser’s team assessed in Australia was an approximate 80,000-acre burn.

The team of experts put treatments in place to redirect the flow of a stream that had several unburned houses bordering its banks. Fire debris clog the stream and once flooding occurs, it damages structures that survived the fire to begin with.

“Quite often what happens is people will survive, but when the rains come the house is still damaged when flooded,” Gasser said matter-of-factly.

The teams removed a significant number of “hazard trees” that had the potential to fall on structures or across roads. They stabilized archeological and aboriginal sites and even located about six new sites. They assessed how the fire impacted wildlife habitats and then took corrective measures to keep the wildlife happy.

After the fire, possum homes were destroyed and, because possums like to nest in boxes, they placed a bunch of boxes edged with honey (possums like honey) to draw the possums back home.

“That’s the part of it we do,” Gasser summarized.

Gasser loves his numerous fire and resource management jobs of today, but it took him quite a while to figure it all out.

Gasser attended Southern Illinois University and received a degree in history and philosophy and then decided to try law school, but it didn’t click. He went to work as a Midwest Stock Exchange program manager, but that wasn’t satisfying either.

Next he hired a career counselor, took a battery of tests, and was told he’d work well outdoors.

He went back to school for two master’s, one for natural resource management and the other for environmental science.

In 1979 Gasser accepted a job with the U.S. Forest Service as the head of a trail crew. The first week he was on the job he was asked if he’d like to fight fires. He said yes and that’s pretty much what he’s been involved in since.

Gasser is content to commute from his Hansville home to his office in Seattle and jet off to foreign countries to assist with firefighting efforts.

The two BAER teams have been together for several years and Gasser enjoys when they all reconvene, which will happen this spring at their preseason meeting in Boise, Idaho.

“Those who didn’t go (to Australia) will hear a lot of war stories,” he said. “I think, ‘Gosh I’m getting paid to do this.’”

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