Two of Aaron Cochran’s passions merged the other day.
The junior defensive lineman and his Whitworth football teammates were leaving the practice field when the conversation turned to the haze created by smoke from regional fires.
“It was pretty dark out and we were walking in and seeing smoke,” Cochran said. “Everyone was talking about it. I was kind of smiling. I love it when the smoke blocks out the sun. It’s kind of a neat vision.”
Cochran excels on several fields. He’s made 30 tackles (second on the team), 4.5 tackles for loss (tied for first) and 1.5 sacks (second). Whitworth (5-0), which entertains Willamette (4-0) for homecoming Saturday, entered the season with question marks up front, but the line has done a solid job.
A bigger field Cochran roams is Klickitat County, where he’s tackled south-central Washington wildfires the last three years for the Department of Natural Resources. He worked on seven fires this summer near his hometown of Goldendale, roughly 70 miles south of Yakima.
“It’s physically challenging and you’re working with a team,” Cochran said. “It’s really everything I like to do, chain-sawing, I love it.”
Firefighting is a family tradition that includes his dad and uncle. Cochran’s younger brother is submitting his application.
“I grew up with first engines around and I always wanted to do it,” Cochran said. “My dad and uncle were on the same crew and there’s a picture of my two cousins and I when we were little babies, sitting in a bucket on the front of one of the brush rigs.”
Cochran came to Whitworth as a two-sport athlete but dropped baseball after his freshman year to concentrate on football and academics. He weighed 198 pounds when he arrived but he’s put on 25 pounds, despite spending his summers in firefighting gear working in 100-degree temperatures.
“The biggest thing is his work ethic,” Pirates coach John Tully said. “We’ve had a couple of (firefighters) in the past and it’s very difficult for them to find the time to work out because they’re so busy and they’re gone so often. Aaron found a way to get it done, and it speaks highly for what he wanted to accomplish.”
Cochran, a reserve lineman who played on special teams last season, has emerged as a starter and rarely leaves the field. The added strength and weight helps Cochran deal with bigger offensive linemen. Willamette’s tackles average 286 pounds.
“It’s been a process,” he said. “I kind of figured I wasn’t going to be able to play at 198 pounds. After my freshman year I worked in the weight room and got up to 210. When I didn’t play baseball, I was able to focus on lifting.”
Cochran works with a different team in the summer, alongside two bosses and 12 firefighters using four trucks. He knows the job is dangerous, but it is interesting, rewarding and pays well, Cochran said.
His ears perk up when there’s a story about wildfires in the paper or on the evening news.
“Most of the ones this summer weren’t huge, but they’re exciting, helicopters and stuff,” he said. “The biggest one was 550 acres outside of Bickleton, lightning strike in scrub oak in the scar of the Cleveland fired that happened in the 1990s. It was weird, kind of eerie.”
Cochran wants to follow in his parents’ footsteps. His mom teaches fifth grade. His dad works at Goldendale High and has been a volunteer firefighter for 20 years.
“I’m going to become a teacher, but in the summer time I want to keep fighting fire,” he said. “I’d like to be on a Hotshot crew for at least one summer. They’re based in a lot of different places but they get to be on the really big fires, like the one near Cle Elum. They’re some of the hardest workers.”
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