HELENA – Layne Ryerson wasted little time getting his cross country season off to a good start. The Carroll College runner won the Early Bird Open on Friday morning, running a 19:56.77 to set the pace. The greens and fairways at Helena’s Bill Roberts Golf Course, though, were a much different sight than Ryerson had seen all summer.
“I didn’t have that much for expectations to be honest, going into the race,” Ryerson said. “I fought fire all summer for the DNRC, so I didn’t get to run a fraction of the mileage that coach probably wanted me to. Don’t tell him that.”
Ryerson competed in the men’s marathon in the NAIA outdoor track and field championships in late May and just days later began his summer job with the DNRC.
“Three years ago he was a senior in high school and his tennis coach (Lance Bouchee) had been a firefighter for years and he thought Layne had what it took to be on the team,” said Annette Ryerson, Layne’s mother and an associate professor at Carroll. “He went on an interview, we were actually out of town, and he called and said he got the job and he started fighting fire three years ago. For three summers he’s been fighting fires and this is the worst season by far. He’s been on a lot of fires that were scary, but this was the season where it just never seemed to end.”
The past three months have been a whirlwind for Ryerson, who enters his second year at Carroll College after beginning his running career at Whitworth University. The former Helena High star runner and tennis player has become one of the veterans on the firefighting crews, giving him more responsibility at blazes across the state.
“I spent a lot of the early summer in eastern Montana out at the July Fire and near the Lodgepole Complex,” he said. “I was on the initial attack agency near Helena and so a lot of the small starts that came up around here, we would try to get on them and our goal was to get 95 percent containment before they got to five acres. I spent a lot of my summer in Helena, a lot in eastern Montana and I had to come back to school and train before all of these popped up out west, so that was kind of a shame.”
If not for school and the cross country season, Ryerson would have remained right there on the lines, trying to hold back the flames devastating his home state. For 16 hours a day Ryerson would run a chainsaw, cutting the lines and trying to predict what the inferno might do next.
Annette says her son is a great firefighter and credits his experience the past few summers. But when 19-year-old Trenton Johnson, whom Ryerson knew and had run with in the past, lost his life battling blazes in western Montana earlier this summer, it really hit home for Annette.
“You think about your 18-year-old or your 20-year-old leaving and not hearing from them, which is typical. He’ll text me fairly regularly, but I never know if his phone died, so that was definitely unnerving,” she said. “He does do a really good job and he loves what he does.”
“I think everybody has come to realize the danger that’s associated with it this summer with the two firefighters that lost their lives in the Lolo Peak Fire,” said Ryerson. “That was really sad for all of us in the firefighting community and everyone else that knew those people and heard about it. In a lot of ways it’s a rush, and in a lot of ways it’s unnerving. I love the guys I work with and it’s a great job.”
Fighting fire throughout the summer months left little time for training for the quickly approaching cross country schedule. Ryerson and his coworkers spent days at a time near the fires, sleeping in tents and working 16-hour days. But much like his dedication assisting on the fire front, Ryerson was passionate about finding time to get in workouts to be prepared for the fall running season.
“A couple of times when I was on fires I would wake up in the morning before we had to be on the line and get a short run in,” he said. “During the day, it’s still a physical activity running a chainsaw and cutting the line and stuff. That was busy. If anything, I just wish I could be out there with them now with how bad everything is. We’re just praying for all the fires.”
“We have a lot of pride in him and he’s very prideful of his job and the people that he works with,” added his mother. “Two of his friends just left to go help with (Hurricane) Harvey that were firefighters he was with here in Helena. As much as we have worries here with our fires, there is still concern about others in other areas. They went on their own, not with the DNRC. But yes, we have a lot of pride. As much as he smells and I have dirty, smoke-filled clothes all over my house, I’m very proud of him, appreciate what he’s done and all the guys and girls that he works with.”