Story of survival
By Danica Sveda (AS, ’09)
Preston Baumgartner (CERT, ’19) (AAS, ’19) isn’t the type of person to sit still. He is what anyone would describe as a go-getter so pursuing a degree in Fire Science was a perfect fit. The academic challenge combined with a strenuous physical element drew Preston to the fire science program at Casper College. During the program under the leadership of the classes ‘mother’ Dale Anderson (AB, ’93), Preston learned the value of the brother/sisterhood of firefighting. That when you fight fires you do so with your ‘fire family’. Dale develops his students into good humans and good partners on the fire line who know what they are doing, and why.
After graduating from the program at Casper College, Preston was hired by the Wind River Big Horn Basin District BLM “Fire” stationed in Lander, Wyoming. The job is dynamic and exciting, a perfect fit for Baumgarten. He says, “A typical day in my job can go any direction fast! We could be enjoying our morning briefing and get called to a fire outside of town, we could be up in the forest doing cutting projects in the 80-degree heat for the last six hours and get called to a timber fire up in the wilderness where we have to walk nine thousand feet in elevation change. It could go from relaxing at the office doing paperwork to protecting land or houses from a threatening fire.” It’s that type of variety and activity that keeps Preston dedicated to his craft as a wildland firefighter.
While most people are content resting on their days off, especially from a job as demanding as firefighting, Preston is not one of those people. Days off mean getting outside and being active. Living in Wyoming gives him access to a variety of wilderness areas where he can look for shed antlers on his days off. This spring was no different and on May 16, 2020, Preston and his friends went to Dubois, Wyoming for the opening day of shed hunting. Preston rode a horse into the backcountry in the morning and anyone who doesn’t ride regularly knows, a long ride can lead to muscle soreness. He decided that he would search for sheds on foot for the rest of the day to help loosen up his sore muscles.
On his way back, Preston was searching for antlers in a draw a mile away from camp with his head bent down searching for a glimpse of white bone in thawing ground when suddenly, a grizzly bear was on top of him. She had appeared out of what seemed like thin air and was instantly attacking. Biting his arms and stomach. Preston recalls that the sound she was making during the attack is a sound he will never forget. Primordial and guttural, it was clear that she wanted to kill him. Overwhelmed with the suddenness of the attack- Preston knew this was a life or death situation. He was thinking, “How can I make it out alive? I saw the past 22 years of my life flash before my eyes and all my regrets and things I should and shouldn’t have done.”
The attack ended abruptly with the use of Preston’s firearm, and he was able to limp back the last mile to camp where the rest of his friends were. Lucky to be alive, help was called and he was immediately life-flighted to the nearest hospital where he was treated for extensive injuries to his stomach and arms. As he was healing all he could think about was getting back to the woods and on the fire line with his second family. The minute the doctor released him to go back to work, he went without hesitation. He couldn’t stand being still any longer.
Once back to work, he was delighted to be back to his second home. The bear attack changed how Preston thinks about everything especially when it comes to movement in the woods. Preston had another scary encounter, but this time, it was a rabbit. “I don’t get scared too easy but it is difficult walking around in the mountains. There was a time I was flagging trees in a pretty thick patch in front of the crew and a rabbit took off running. That was the second time I have ever been scared for my life. The little rabbit almost made my heart burst and sent me back to the pickup to change my pants.” After the attack, he is keenly aware of his surroundings. His respect for the other animals that share the mountains with him has deepened. He won’t stop shed hunting because his love of the outdoors is stronger than his fear.
As Preston looks into the future he knows he will one day return to Lemmon, SD after he is done chasing fires. It is the family ranch that shaped him into the fine man that he is today and he wants to follow in his grandfather and his father’s footsteps at the Baumgarten ranch after he is done chasing fires and dodging bears.