East Fork firefighter hopes to mentor Washoe youth
“This is going to be the last time I’m going to apply,” Lester McDonald told his wife, Lindy, in July 2018.
McDonald, a member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, was applying for a firefighter position with the East Fork Fire Protection District, which serves Douglas County outside of the Tahoe Basin.
Raised in Carson City and Dresslerville, McDonald had been trying for years to land a job as a structure firefighter, applying to fire districts dotted across Nevada, California, Oregon and Washington.
“I’ve always been disappointed — I wasn’t getting further than the chief’s interviews,” McDonald said in a recent interview with First Nation’s Focus.
Still, McDonald figured it was worth a shot. He applied to East Fork Fire on the final day of its application window.
‘I’M A THRILL-SEEKER’
McDonald said his interest in firefighting was sparked at a young age when his brother-in-law, who works for the Reno Fire Department, “put a bug in my ear.”
Added McDonald: “Just listening to him speak about his experiences motivated me. I’m kind of a thrill-seeker.”
A graduate of Carson High School in 2000, McDonald wasted no time starting his firefighting career. After high school, he cut his teeth as a wildland firefighter with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ “Morning Star Hotshots” crew. For the uninitiated, hotshot crews work on the hottest part of wildfires, fighting them for extended periods of time with little logistical support.
“I really enjoy the adrenaline,” said McDonald, who later joined the Bureau of Land Management’s “Silver State Hotshots” crew in 2006. A year prior, he earned his fire science degree from Truckee Meadows Community College.
McDonald and his crew worked large, high-priority wildland fires sparked everywhere in the western U.S., from the neighboring mountains of California and Utah to far-flung patches of land in remote Alaska.
“It’s pretty dynamic,” he said. “Being out there with 20 guys, you have one goal in mind, and that’s to put out the fire.”
Pausing, he tacked on: “And to support your family.”
With the birth of a daughter, Kellsee, in 2006, McDonald decided the life of a wildland firefighter was too much time away from home; too many missed moments — family vacations, birthday parties and sporting events, to name a few. McDonald and his wife, Lindy, later had another daughter, Kamrynn.
“You’re always gone,” McDonald said. “You’re gone all summer — you have no summer. That’s time you can’t get back. I needed something more stable to take care of my family. And I didn’t want to miss any more time.”
This, McDonald said, is why he left wildland firefighting at the end of the 2007 season. He got a job with a beer distributor, driving a truck and delivering beer for the next seven and a half years.
However, “I knew during that time that delivering beer wasn’t necessarily for me,” he said. “I couldn’t see myself for 30 years going up and down a ramp.”
FOLLOWING HIS DREAM
He could see himself fighting fires again. And so, in 2015, he returned to wildland firefighting for the BLM.
However, the long hours, days and weeks away from home remained.
McDonald truly wanted to work as a structure firefighter, where the hours would be stable and the days off would be consistent. He went back to school and earned an advanced EMT certification and took a job doing road maintenance for the California Department of Transportation. All the while, he applied to fire departments in Northern Nevada and beyond, but no job offer came about.
“I’m always amazed by his determination,” Lindy McDonald said in an email. “He always had hope and never let fear get the best of him. I prayed a lot and was often reminded that all the sacrifices and commitment would eventually pay off.”
In July 2018, when he came upon openings with the East Fork Fire Protection District, McDonald decided it would be his last application, at least for a while.
“I thought nothing was going to come of it,” he admitted.
He was wrong. In August 2018, East Fork Fire Chief Tod Carlini called and offered McDonald a firefighter/EMT position.
“I was actually speechless, I didn’t know what to say,” McDonald said, laughing. “(Chief Carlini) was like, ‘Are you still there?’”
Added Lindy: “I still remember the call. There was kind of an awkward silence and several tears. The first thing I said was, ‘Your dad would be so proud of you.’”
‘IT’S EVERY BOY’S DREAM
Not only was McDonald being offered the chance to be a structure firefighter, but he’d also be serving the communities he grew up in. Simply put, it was McDonald’s dream job.
“I was so overcome with emotion because I’ve tried so hard,” said McDonald, who after 12 weeks in the fire academy officially started with his East Fork Fire crew in January 2019. “Helping the community in which I grew up is amazing to me.”
“And I’m passionate about firefighting. It’s every boy’s dream in a sense to become a firefighter.”
In fact, McDonald, who recently passed his probationary period in September, said he hopes to be a mentor to native youths of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.
“I know it’s hard growing up out there (on the reservation),” McDonald said. “I’m a true testament that you can persevere and be what you want to be as long as you stick your mind to specific goals.
“I like to go out there and see familiar faces. And hopefully, they see me and know ‘he’s one of us’ and are proud. And maybe one day their kids will look to me as a role model and become a firefighter, too.”