A shot of the fire taken by Blake Toth, who works on a helicopter team that does everything from transportation missions to dropping water on the fires. Photo courtesy of Blake Toth

Blake Toth, a 2012 Westbrook High School graduate and Marine veteran, has been fighting the ongoing wildfires in California.

As dangerous as the work is, it’s a fulfilling form of service for Toth, whose nonprofit, Veterans in Fire, is helping other veterans find a passion in firefighting. It does so by telling the stories online via Facebook and Instagram of veterans currently firefighting.

The stories, told in first person, including that of a former Marine who found himself in hard times after his service and landed in prison, where he joined an inmate firefighting crew.

“Honestly, going to jail was the best thing that could have happened at the time,” the former Marine wrote on the Veterans in Fire Facebook page. “And I was able to do some amazing s— while I was in there: I mean, who goes diving and firefighting in prison! But those were opportunities I had to fight for and I take pride in those accomplishments now. ”

Another former Marine wrote how he felt lost after transitioning after leaving the service: “You know, in the military everyone around you is always looking out for you, men you can rely on, who sacrifice their lives for the men to the left and right. I felt I had no purpose anymore, numb. All I wanted was to feel something. Combine the mental agony of losing friends to combat, numerous suicides of buddies who lost all hope, lost the battle with their demons and thought it was their only option. Suicide became my only logical option at the time as well. It made sense. … Luckily I failed. I was given a second chance to live.”

That former Marine wrote how being part of a firefighting team gave him both a sense of purpose and a sense of family.

“Fire saved my life, it has given me purpose and direction. No amount of medicine, therapy, hell whatever we try to get back on a good path, will do what fire has done for me. It feels like home.”

Prior to firefighting, Toth said he worked 14 jobs between 2017 and 2019, after a five-year career with the Marines.

In 2018, he also raised money for nonprofit Honor Flight by walking over 170 miles from Portland to Vermont.

Today, he is “where he needs to be,” said his mother, Donna Toth.

“He’s always thought of someone else and is always doing crazy things,” Donna Toth said. “I didn’t even know he was really doing this. I’m a teacher at Westbrook High, I walked into work one (day) and they were like ‘I saw Blake on the news!’ So I catch up with him every other week but he is so busy.”

It wasn’t an easy transition though, Toth said.

“I applied to the Southwest Conservation Corps’ Veteran Fire Corps in Durango, Colorado. It was a volunteer position,” Toth said.

He took the seats out of his Subaru station wagon and then spent six months living in his car, “leaving Maine behind for a life in fire.”

“Being surround by other veterans and learning the basics about wildland fire, I quickly realized how beneficial this was for me and for them,” he said. “We all asked the same question, ‘Why didn’t we know about this?’ The options and opportunities for veterans in fire are plentiful and endless. Yet, none of us knew about them, we all stumbled our way into it.”

Toth is now helping fight the over 100,000-acre wildfire in California, which claimed the 26th life in the state to wildfires this year, according to the Associated Press.

He works with United States Forest Service on a helitack. Helitack firefighters are transported by helicopter to wildfires, according to the USDA. Toth specializes in helicopter operations.

“Flying into a thick cloud of smoke, not knowing what’s on the other side, feeling the heat against your skin as you pass over burned homes, as thousands of pounds of water sways underneath your helicopter, seeing the helplessness and (destruction), you remember that. I decided being comfortable wasn’t the answer,” Toth said.

His days vary.

“Our mission could be slinging thousands of pounds of cargo out to crews on the fire line, only to get interrupted to do an emergency medical extraction,” he said. “We could be digging fire line and coordinating water drops or providing aerial reconnaissance for mapping the fire.”

Toth also had a few words of advice for those at home.

“Be smart with your decisions with fire, lives depend on it,” Toth said. “You can help by being educated or if you can or feel the need to donate money, donations can be made to The Wildland Firefighter Foundation.”

Veterans who would like more information on Veterans in Fire can reach Toth at [email protected] or visit Veterans in Fire on Instagram and Facebook.

A helicopter that Toth’s crew utilizes, with smoke in the background coming from the fire. Starting earlier this month, the El Dorado Fires in California are still underway. Toth said he will likely stay in California for the remainder of the year. Courtesy photo

Comments are not available on this story.