Fire chief’s passion spreads like wildfire
For Peabody Fire Chief Mark Penner, his enthusiasm fighting fires doesn’t stop at the local level. That’s just the beginning.
Through special training, Penner is the holder of a red card, which qualifies him for incidents on the federal level, and for which he has deployed all over the country to fight wildfires.
Penner has been a member of the volunteer fire department for 15 years, and Fire Chief for seven. While his services are strictly volunteer in Peabody, Penner gets compensated for his time fighting wildfires elsewhere.
Obtaining a red card is no small feat. Penner said there are several training components offered through Kansas Forest Service, including a three-mile arduous walk carrying 45 pounds in a pack, completed in under 45 minutes.
“When you’re out working forest fires you constantly have a pack on,” he said. “You have to pass the test once a year in order to be certified.”
This is Penner’s third year with a red card, and his second year responding to a cry for firefighters in wildfire situations.
“I like to learn every way to fight fires the best way I can,” he said. “We mostly deal with structure fires here, so it was neat to learn more about the forest fire side of it.”
Penner is notified of opportunities to put his skills to work by email, and he chooses which to accept.
Penner responded to a call last year in Butte Falls, Oregon. Deployments of this nature are generally only up to 14 days, but Penner said they needed him longer.
“There was a lot of fires going on out there, and they begged whoever could stay to do so,” he said. “I was there for a total of 16 days. When you’re out there you meet people from all over the country. I met a lot of guys from Oregon and another engine crew had someone from Arizona.”
Penner has also traveled to Lowell, Idaho, and recently went to western Kansas to fight a fire that spanned more than 1,600 acres.
Besides the difficulties that come with fighting fires of this magnitude, Penner says it’s hard to be away from his family.
“I get a little homesick,” he said. “When you’re up in the mountains fighting these fires, there’s no cell service. Every three days when we go into to town to fuel up everyone is on their cell phones to check in back home.”
Penner said some of his specific training applies at the local level.
“Those are massive fires out there and you can bring a lot back to our department here and implement some of it.”
His passion for fighting fires goes beyond his time on the scene.
“I love it. I eat, drink and sleep it,” he said.
His ardor has spread to a growing volunteer fire department in Peabody. Penner’s enthusiasm motivated three other men to pursue their red card, including his 18-year-old son, Bailey, and firefighters Chris Carr and Christopher Brooks. The group plans on attending training this weekend.
Penner finds enjoyment in the challenge and surroundings of his time spent following his love of fighting fires.
“One of my favorite parts is being able to live in a tent for 14 days in a national forest,” he said. “I’ve camped along rivers and it looks like it’s right out of a magazine.”
Penner says that whether nearby or abroad any time spent doing what he loves is worth it.
“Anytime you can play with fire while helping others, it’s a good day.”