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Balkan War survivor battling wildfires to give back to U.S.

New wildland firefighters tackle a controlled burn Thursday at Camp Lutherhaven during the annual wildfire training “Guard School” hosted by North Idaho Wildfire Training Zone. The multiagency event is a cooperative effort of the Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce tribes, Idaho Department of Lands, Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. (Kathy Plonka)
New wildland firefighters tackle a controlled burn Thursday at Camp Lutherhaven during the annual wildfire training “Guard School” hosted by North Idaho Wildfire Training Zone. The multiagency event is a cooperative effort of the Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce tribes, Idaho Department of Lands, Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. (Kathy Plonka)

He’s survived the brutality of war. Now he’s ready to fight fires.

This week Faton Sadiku, who goes by Tony, took part in the annual wildfire training program “Guard School” on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene, along with 143 other first-year trainees.

Sadiku originally worked in the forest department in the Republic of Kosovo in Eastern Europe. However, a trip to Missoula in 2008 convinced him he wanted to live in the United States. So he enrolled at the University of Montana, studied forestry and then joined the U.S. Navy. He became a U.S. citizen almost two years ago.

Sadiku has a special connection to the United States. He was in Kosovo during the Kosovo War, which was part of the larger Balkan Wars.

“I love the United States,” he said. “I’m very thankful. … They did a great job in the Balkans. They stopped genocide and … the most terrible things you could imagine.”

Now, along with the rest of his cohort, Sadiku is learning how to fight wildland fires. He feels like it’s a way to give back to his adopted country, and he likes the community.

He isn’t the only guard looking for a sense of community. The training brought men and women from the Bureau of Land Management, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the state of Idaho. Many of the trainees have military backgrounds. That diversity is important to the experience, said incident commander Ken Homik. Homik was in charge of the operation.

“It’s a cooperative effort,” he said. “There is no one agency that can do it on their own.”

Although this upcoming season is predicted to be a long one, Homik said, they’re not doing anything significantly different. Each season, safety is their primary concern.

“The primary goal is to provide these students a foundation from which to build from,” he said. Students spend several days in the classroom and end their week fighting a controlled burn. The work is hot and strenuous. Among other tests, student have to pass a “pack test.” To pass, they have to walk 3 miles in less than 45 minutes with 45 pounds of gear on their backs. They also learn to deploy fire shelters, build fire lines and clear brush.

While a potentially longer fire season means more money, it also means greater risk and more time away from home. Gideon Telford, of Post Falls, said he will miss his 8-month-old daughter. Meredith Owen, of Missoula, is nervous for her boyfriend who is on a fire crew in Montana.

Still, they’re excited for the work.

“I like the cohesion, the camaraderie of working in a crew setting,” said Robb Redfox, from Missoula.

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