So you say your job requires putting out an occasional fire?
Talk to Mandi Cramer.
Cramer, who works in the Starbucks kiosk at the Brookings, SD, Hy-Vee, is a volunteer firefighter trained to battle the kind of out-of-control blazes that have caused millions of dollars in damage across several Western states this summer.
“I'm always on call. I wear my pager on my belt. When the tone goes off, I leave work if the kiosk is not too busy. In prime situations, I leave for every call,” says Cramer, who joined Hy-Vee and her local fire department right out of high school in 2005. “When the call comes for a wild land fire, our chief will put out an announcement informing qualified members of an assignment. We have a limited time to get there. And we always pack for 14 days.”
Cramer headed late last month to Spearfish, SD, where lightning sparked a fire on tinder-dry Crow Peak near the Wyoming border. Within a day, the fire had consumed five acres. Within two days, 150 acres were engulfed. Rugged terrain, gusty winds and soaring temperatures combined to nearly melt the mettle of the nearly 200 firefighters from around the region who showed up to battle the flames.
Two sweaty, intense weeks after her pager went off, the fire was doused— thanks in part to a fortuitous rain—and Mandi was back making lattes and waiting for the next call to arms.
“It was her second trip out west this summer. I always tell her: ‘When something happens, you just go; we’ll get someone to cover,’” says Karen Andersen, Starbucks manager at the Brookings store. “I look at it this way: If I ever told her ‘no, you can’t go on a call,’ it would probably be my house that’s on fire.”
It’s rare to see a woman in her mid 20s amid the grizzled, soot-covered strike teams that are called in when flames threaten to overrun towns and public areas. It’s even more rare to see that same young woman wielding a chainsaw on the front lines next to her father.
Bruce Cramer became a firefighter in 1980 and has been fighting wild fires for the past dozen years. He says he joined the department out a sense of community service, but he stayed because he enjoys the work.
“I grew up with it, watching dad be a firefighter,” Mandi says. “I’ve known it my whole life, but wild land fires is what got me hooked.”
The Cramers’ strike team, Coyote 1 Wildland Association, comprises specially trained personnel from nine departments. At Crow Peak, Cramer and her father were forced into separate areas as secondary blazes cropped up. Days began at 5 a.m. and ended 16 hours later.
“It’s not for everybody,” Bruce Cramer says. “You have to enjoy living outdoors and be able to rough it.”
The job description includes occasional encounters with rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep and mountain lions. The Cramers spent a combined 58 days in the wild last year.
“Firefighters, in general, are close, but I think wild land fighters are even closer,” says Mandi, who has celebrated four birthdays while on duty. “We can easily put in 100 hours per week on a big fire. It takes a lot of help from my co-workers and manager to allow me to go.”
Andersen says it’s all part of Hy-Vee’s desire to support employees who volunteer in their communities.
“We’re really a family in our little kiosk. We go on picnics, we have movie nights. We’re close,” she explains. “So if Mandi is willing to fight fires for us, more power to her.”
Pictured: Mandi Cramer and her father, Bruce, of Brookings, SD, are a daughter-dad firefighting team. They respond to local calls but also travel to fight wildfires wherever they break out.