By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
Shuster, 25, laughs when he says. “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” He’s always loved being outdoors, hunting and camping and riding ATVs, and he knew that whatever the future holds for him, it will be something outside.
A friend who went to Penn State began a career in landscape architecture and the talks between the two of them intrigued Shuster.
“It’s a discipline so broad, there’s so much to do. Some of my friends do private landscaping, others work for large companies, some are big-time park designers, including the World Trade Center,” he said.
Shuster enrolled in the same program at Penn State, graduating in May 2012 with a bachelor’s degree. As part of his studies, he spent four months abroad, so being away from home and from his close-knit family was something he got used to. Shuster, a volleyball and basketball standout at Farrell Area High School, class of 2007, is a son of Marybeth and William “Mouse” Shuster of Farrell.
While he was studying architecture in Berlin, Paris and Barcelona, he got word that Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, located outside Washington, D.C., was looking for a design intern.
He got the position and spent a summer transforming an acre parcel into a native meadow, focusing on creating a field of wildflowers, grasses and plants all native to northern Virginia.
“It was just an invaluable experience for me,” he said.
He returned to Penn State to finish his degree and a permanent job opened up in the park.
He had only been on the job for a short while when his boss, a fire management officer for the National Capitol region, asked if anyone was interested in volunteering to be a wildland firefighter.
“I was pretty indifferent to the whole idea,” he said, “but a couple other guys were all into it,” he said.
Shuster isn’t the only one in his family with a love of the outdoors. His older sister, Liz Winslow, is a federal law enforcement officer who works at the Delaware Water Gap, and she already has the “red card” that certifies her as a firefighter. Her husband, Andrew, is also a firefighter and has been to several fires.
“He told me it’s interesting. It can be fun, but it’s always a serious matter.”
He and a co-worker from the park signed up for the intense training, consisting of classroom work first and then field training.
“And that is mostly about safety, and weather. And the physical end of it is carrying about 45 pounds of gear for three miles in under 45 minutes,” he said.
Among the things he was trained to carry, besides the fire shelter, a tin foil bag that is “pretty much the last line of defense” against a wildfire, and his hand tools, is three to four quarts of water, he said.
Initially not so fired up about the idea, he became really excited as he completed the training.
“I got that red card and on the waiting list right away. There were three of us that trained and I was the driving force behind getting us finished,” he said. He was classified as a Type 2 I.A., an initial attack firefighter, he said.
Less than two months after he finished training, wildfires broke out across California and the Pacific Northwest in early August. He was disappointed that his friend was called up right away.
“I thought I lost my chance. I was mad. Really mad,” he said.
Not even a week later, Shuster said he was out to dinner in Pittsburgh on a Saturday night with his girlfriend and her parents when he got the call.
“I had 12 hours to be in Roanoke, Va.”
He said he called home to tell his mother he was getting called up.
“She picked up the phone and I heard her say, ‘He better not be calling me to tell me he’s going,’ but that was exactly why I was calling,” he said.
He made a quick stop at Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy supplies for 14 days. He made it to Roanoke on time and was quickly dispatched to Knoxville, Tenn., the east coast staging area for volunteers headed west.
“When I found out I was going to Alaska, I was ecstatic. I had a hunting trip planned for Wyoming in October. I was so excited to be going up to Alaska. I was so caught up in it, my mind was spinning. I couldn’t really grasp it,” he said.
As the jet carrying Shuster and about 100 others flew over Fairbanks, Alaska, it was “jaw-dropping. Breathtaking. And light. It stays light all night for part of the year,” he said.
“I learned so much in that introductory course to Alaska. For instance, it takes up two-thirds of the continental United States. There are three million lakes. I learned about using the frozen tundra as a refrigerator and how to be safe from grizzlies and wild animals. But honestly, it wasn’t anything I thought I’d really have to use,” he said.
Of the five crews of 20, one crew was going to be sent “way, way up north, but no way did I think it would be us,” he said.
But it was. “They put us on two small prop planes and flew us another hour and 20 minutes in to Venetie, Alaska, which was basically a landing strip beside a garage,” he said.
Helicopters took them another 45 minutes north, dropping them off along Christian River, near the burning wildfire. His crew dug latrines, used the tundra as a refrigerator, and lived off military MRE’s. Each man slept in a tent he carried with him.
“Everything had to be hung in the trees so the bears didn’t come. The food, the trash, everything,” he said. He didn’t see any grizzly bears, but describes seeing the grizzly tracks on the trail as a “sobering” experience. He and his 20-man crew worked 16-hour days, usually from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Their job, he said, was to “mop up,” putting out hot spots that could reignite, feeling the ground for areas that were hot and looking for smoky, smoldering tundra.
“We were lucky in that we had the river nearby and we could use pumps and hoses from there,” he said.
Sleeping, even though they were exhausted, was difficult, because even at 11:30 p.m., it was still light. Done for the night, the crew would sit around the campfire, unaware of what time it really was. He spent two weeks there, with no cell service or any other way to contact anyone at home.
“Then there was a shift in the weather and they declared the fire season over up there. But now, Boise, Idaho, was on fire and they asked us if we wanted to extend our tour another week,” he said.
“And my first thought was that I would miss Labor Day back home. We always go to a friend’s place, we call it ‘The Farm’ and have a big thing. I didn’t want to miss that. But I knew I couldn’t not extend because I wanted to go to a party,” he said.
He used a satellite phone to call his boss at Wolf Trap to make sure he could stay the extra week, he said.
Within hours, the crew had “remediated” their campsite, meaning that there was no sign they had been there at all and were headed not to Boise, but Missoula, Montana.
“It changed that quick, because the situation worsened in Montana,” he said.
In Alaska, he said, he never really felt in danger. That wasn’t the case in Montana. Setting up camp on a Little League field, he could see the fires burning from his tent.
“It was number one on the situation list. And I was nervous, because I didn’t know what to expect there,” he said.
That was his first experience with a “burn back,” lighting another fire to stop the one rolling down the mountain. He said he watched as the fire was 100 yards away from him and the more experienced firefighters weren’t even moving.
“They didn’t even get moving until it was about 30 yards out,” he said. “I was getting pretty nervous,” he said.
After 21 days, his tour was up.
“The single most important thing I learned is that even though the fire is out, you still can’t get lackadaisical. You are always in danger. It takes one spark to ignite one tree and you’re in it again. You learn to keep your head on a swivel,” he said.
Back home in Arlington, Va., and back to his job at Wolf Trap, Shuster is ready to go again, if the opportunity comes up.
“I’m back on the list. I’d like to get some more training and go a little farther, maybe work with the crews that do an ecological assessment afterwards.”