2 music students extinguish norms as volunteer firefighters

Katherine Muser and Taber Land have been volunteering for the Galeton Fire and Protection District while attending the University of Northern Colorado

Morgan McKenzie
Greeley Tribune, Colo.

GREELEY, Colo. — Author Jeffery Frye wrote, "Music is often the spark that lights the fire of the soul."

Two talented music students at the University of Northern Colorado are not only quenching souls from the fire that comes from their music, but they are also quenching actual fires as volunteers.

Katherine Muser, a senior music student at the University of Northern Colorado, spent last summer working as a firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming. During the school year, Muser is a volunteer firefighter at Galeton Fire and Protection District, which is about 15 minutes from the Greeley campus.
Katherine Muser, a senior music student at the University of Northern Colorado, spent last summer working as a firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming. During the school year, Muser is a volunteer firefighter at Galeton Fire and Protection District, which is about 15 minutes from the Greeley campus. (Photo/Katherine Muser)

Katherine Muser and Taber Land both embarked on a not-so-typical path outside of their expertise in music when they learned about the Galeton Fire and Protection District volunteering opportunities.

Muser, a senior at UNC, is a triple major in musical education with vocal/choral emphasis, music education with an instrumental/band emphasis and instrumental performance.

As a young child, she was homeschooled by her parents who were very musical. Her mother taught her piano at an early age and she began learning the violin at 11. Her passion for music growing up, specifically with the violin, led her to pursue music at UNC.

Her desire to fight fires stemmed from her childhood, too. As a child, Muser's father was considered the honorary fire marshall on the Air Force base. The insights from her dad's role mixed in with her lifeguarding experience from high school made Galeton a great place to start when jumping into the world of firefighting, she said.

"I just thought it'd be a really valuable perspective," Muser said. "I was kind of drawn to it ... people don't think of those things as something that's approachable for them to actually do."

Land, who referred Muser to Galeton's volunteer program, joined the fire district in spring 2021.

"The thought that I could be a firefighter while being a violinist was just the coolest idea to me," Land said. "I am an advocate for people doing exciting things and trying things that they would never do."

The volunteer program at Galeton allows volunteers to receive training opportunities and hands-on experience in the field, which led both students to take their firefighting careers further and even earn money with their learned knowledge.

Muser's first year at Galeton sparked an interest in getting a job as a wildland firefighter. This past summer, she was hired at the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, with plans to return back this coming summer.

As a wildland firefighter, she helped fight the Richard Springs fire in Montana. By the time her engine responded, the fire had burned more than 10,000 acres. In the first three days, the fire reached nearly 150,000 acres, according to Muser.

"When you're in a situation, you just do it because it's your job and it's really important that it's done well," Muser said. "And then I come back to school and I'm studying music history, and I'm like, 'Was I really doing that?'"

Her work during the summer entailed long, sometimes 16-hour workdays of structural protection operations, keeping people safe and the normal management activities of firefighting. After the days of labor-intensive work, firefighters would find a field to sleep in so they could rest up for the next day of work.

"It's a really good, very different experience," Muser said. "It's the hardest I've ever worked in my life, but it's so rewarding. It gives you a perspective you don't have, and that's true of any job and experience, but I really, really valued it."

Similar to Muser, Land worked as a wildland firefighter for two summers. His firefighter career was launched when he was hired to work with the Washington Department of Natural Resources in 2020.

Those who work in wildland firefighting go through knowledge-based, physical and hands-on training. Depending on the role, additional training is necessary, Land explained, who worked on an engine crew and learned how to operate the vehicle.

Through both seasons, he responded to 25 active incidents, some fires being 200 acres or more.

Initially, he found the inspiration to give firefighting a try after his uncle decided to become a volunteer firefighter in Washington. His uncle advised him to go down the wildland firefighter path because it was a way to make money for college during the summer.

As someone who has done this work, Land encourages all college students to avoid the miseries of retail and food service jobs, and take a chance on wildland firefighting.

"I'm a really strong advocate for college students doing wildland firefighting," Land said. "I think there are some general misconceptions that people have about it. You don't need to be some super athlete. It's surprisingly manageable, even if you're not in great shape."

As a violinist, Land is majoring in instrumental performance at UNC. While he finishes up his junior year and enters his last year of college, he continues to battle balancing both worlds of music and firefighting.

He reported he faces difficulty because both fields have expectations for what's next in his career.

While he enjoys both passions, spending too much time away from his violin always results in lost progress, which is something to avoid as he preps for his senior recital. He often has to switch back and forth between the two to maintain a balance, he said.

"It's like fighting fire," Land said. "You'll like see one thing catch fire and then you put it out and then something that you just put out reignites again and you're running back and forth between the two."

Luckily, both students can confirm the balancing act between firefighting and music isn't as much of a struggle as a volunteer at Galeton.

Since music students have much more on their plates compared to other majors, such as practicing for hours every day, Galeton provides flexible schedules for all volunteers.

Galeton volunteer work consists of 12 or 24-hour shifts with a certain amount of volunteer hours to reach every month. Muser is required to work at least 36 hours per month, but usually works 48 hours with two 24-hour shifts every month during a weekend.

To her, this type of schedule is convenient with her school schedule.

"It hasn't been as difficult as you might think because it's on the weekends and it's realistic to be able to get in the hours that you need to," Muser said. "There's some time in the evenings that's to ourselves, and so I'm free to work on homework after our designated training and PT time is done."

As volunteers, the music students spend most of their shifts doing chores, training, maintenance and making sure everything is ready to go and the space is tidy, Muser explained. Volunteer requirements include some introductory courses and other training for certifications throughout the first year.

However, there are certain qualifications that limit their abilities out in the field, like the lack of Firefighter One or EMT certifications. For example, the students are unable to go into a structure if there is a fire, they can only respond from outside.

Overall, Galeton only gets a few calls per week due to its population and location. Land indicated he's only responded to around two traffic-related calls and one medical call.

"You're limited but it's surprising how important the simple things that you would be doing are," Land said. "So, there's a place for people who are less certified and they definitely encourage you to get more certified at Galeton."

As the two students grow in their journeys as firefighters, both have said they enjoyed and appreciated their time at the up-and-coming volunteer department, especially due to the leadership of Chief Russ Kane.

Muser and Land both credited Kane for helping get their foot in the door in the world of firefighting. Without his open arms welcoming two music kids to his department, the students would not have expanded their horizons.

" Galeton has just been phenomenal," Land said. "I saw how open they are. There is a blanket of acceptance for anyone who walks through the door and who has a real interest in doing it. "

Kane has even shown his support outside of the fighting fires, Muser said. Her two worlds merged together when Kane came to watch her senior recital.

"I do want to say, definitely, a huge thank you to Chief Kane," Muser said. "Being a part of a team that he's a leader of has really been an extremely valuable experience. He's an incredible leader of people. He's just been an amazing figure in my life that I never would have anticipated."

Although she plans to work one more summer as a wildland firefighter, Muser will continue to pursue music after graduation in May. With her triple major and time student teaching, she has multiple options to choose from including teaching and graduate school. Her dream is to one day teach music at a university level.

As for Land, he also has a list of future opportunities with his main passion being classical composition. To better his skills, he said he plans to study with his grandfather, who is a composer.

There are people who say those who never fully commit themselves to being a musician, never make it. And there are people who encourage musicians to have more realistic backup plans. Land said he falls between the two sentiments, with firefighting as an option he still wants to pursue.

"It may end up being that there'll be periods of time in my life where I can't do either one or I'll have to choose one or the other," Land said. "But I love both worlds."


(c)2022 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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