Jeff Whitney has known he wanted to be a firefighter since he was 14, growing up in Wickenburg.
“My brother-in-law worked briefly one summer at Heber,” he said. “He had kind of described it to me. He thought it was terrible and I thought it sounded great.”
Now, decades later, Whitney commands one of 17 teams in the country called to manage large-scale disasters.
His team has handled earthquakes, oil spills, the Columbia space shuttle disaster, Hurricane Katrina and numerous wildfires.
“I can’t drive around the Southwest and look at a mountain range and not have a memory of being on a fire up there,” he said.
Whitney paid for his bachelor’s degree in botany by working on a Hotshot crew for six years. Over time, he has moved between Arizona and New Mexico in various capacities and has been in the fire business for about 35 years. In 1996, he earned a master’s degree from Arizona State University in natural resources.
As incident commander, Whitney manages all aspects of a wildfire, including firefighters, medical units, safety officers, finance departments and caterers.
He compares it to being the mayor of a town.
“A lot of times I show up a day or two into it and I have 3,000 people under my control,” he said.
Although he also works for the Tonto National Forest managing biologists and wildlife experts, the call to serve as incident commander could come at any time.
“It’s always like we get a call in the middle of the night,” he said. “The phone could ring right now.”
And by sundown, Whitney and his team could be in some unexpected place together doing their thing again, he said.
He describes it as “restoring order out of chaos.” And he admits it’s not an easy lifestyle.
“It’s very hard on families. It’s very hard on relationships,” he said, adding that he had already been working in fire when he met his wife.
“It was accepted and understood. She’s great,” he said. “She seems to have adjusted better than I have.”
His team gets called out to five or six assignments per year, and members have forged relationships across the country.
“We’re like a big family. We’ve been through a lot of things,” he said. “You develop a lot of strong relationships with people. And you have to count on that sort of thing because you’re in some very difficult situations and it is serious business.”
Whitney talks with reverence about some of his experiences: Working with the community that found human remains from the ill-fated Columbia shuttle mission; seeing what he called the darkest side of human nature during Hurricane Katrina.
“Life and property is at the center of what we do,” he said.
Eventually, Whitney hopes to move up to area commander, a position that manages several incident teams at once.
He will retire — someday — and when he does he’ll do something completely different. He said a lot of people have a hard time letting go.
“It’s a bad habit,” he said.