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Bows and Blazes, UNC Music Students Tune Up Their Community as Volunteer Firefighters

Fire training at Galeton Fire and Protection District

November 30, 2021

Taber Land chose to attend the University of Northern Colorado for one reason; to become a better violinist. Music flowed through Land’s childhood. The junior, looking to get his bachelor’s in Music, Instrumental Performance, grew up in Washington with his uncle playing the violin and his grandfather composing music, which is what he hopes to do post-graduation.  

Taber Land

“I have a strong interest in classical composition. I’m interested in writing in my own voice, so I want to become a composer,” Land said.

That requires him to pick up his bow and practicing fast passages and rhythms whenever he can. But playing an instrument isn’t the only intense activity taking up Land’s spare time. Alongside playing beautiful, eloquent and moving music, Land also helps battle raging fires that span hundreds of acres at a time.  

“I’ve always been adventurous. Things get mundane so I like to do things that are completely different,” Land said. Playing the violin and firefighting on the side is just that – different. “It balances you out,” Land explained. 

To earn an income while he’s not in school, Land  worked for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources the past two summers, responding to field fires. The extreme drought conditions from this past summer not only kept him busy, it also sharpened his skills. 

“I got a lot of valuable experience,” Land said. “I responded to over a dozen instances in one summer alone followed by numerous checkups where you’re visiting the same places and you're checking for heat or tiny smoke in the ground to make sure there is nothing else that could ignite again.” 

Taber Land in uniform

UNC junior Taber Land working as a wildland firefighter in Washington

Taber Land fire

One of the fires Taber Land responded to in Washington

Taber Land

One of the fires Taber Land responded to in Washington

Land brought those skills back to Colorado and the Galeton Fire and Protection District, just 15 minutes from UNC’s Greeley’s campus, where he somehow fits in helping community members in need between his coursework, rehearsals and recitals.  

“The job is exciting. There have been calls where I was an important part of the response. Even though I’m not the most certified, it’s still really helpful to have more people there to respond to an emergency,” Land said.  

Though the juxtaposition of creating beautiful melodies and fighting back hot flames would normally put Land’s college experience in a category of its own, he actually has a fellow Bear and violinist experiencing the same contrast.  

“Taber introduced me to Galeton Fire where I work locally now,” Katherine Muser said. 

Muser also grew up with music in her household.

“My mom and dad both played the piano and then I startedKatherine Muser playing violin when I was 11 years old,” Muser said.

Muser is now a senior at UNC, triple majoring in Musical Education Vocal/Choral, Music Education Instrumental/Band and Instrumental Performance. And — just like Land — is a volunteer firefighter in Galeton during the school year and was a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Bureau of Lands Management in Rawlins, Wyoming last summer.

“I responded to many major incidents. The largest one was the Richard Springs fire. We were on deployment in Montana and the fire grew around 120,000 acres in a couple of days,” Muser said.

Those were some of the hardest days she’d ever worked.  

“We would bed down for the night in some field away from the fire and when you wake up, depending on the night, you could still see the smoke and your sleeping bag was just covered in ash. So you shake it out, put on a clean T-shirt and you get ready to go,” Muser said.

At times, Muser couldn’t see her fellow firefighters when they were standing just 10 feet away because of the thick smoke. Her job included occasionally driving the fire engine to the scene, navigating and communicating through the radio, coordinating crews and looking for hot spots.  

“It can be really overwhelming, but our engine captains are really experienced. Trust is huge because you trust those guys with your life and you need to,” Muser said.

Katherine Muser

UNC senior Katherine Muser working as a wildland firefighter in Montana 

Katherine Muser

UNC senior Katherine Muser working as a wildland firefighter in Montana

Fire

Richard Springs fire near Colstrip, Montana where Katherine Muser was deployed

Fire

Richard Springs fire near Colstrip, Montana where Katherine Muser was deployed

The pair say they feel that same trust at the Galeton Fire Station. Along with their course load, Muser and Land spend upwards of 48 hours each month training and running calls. Fire Chief Russ Kane says volunteer firefighters are very important, making up half of the staff and one-third of the response team in Galeton. Currently the station has around 25 to 30 active volunteers this fall including the violinists.  

“Their commitment to public service, education and the arts is exemplary,” Kane said.  

But for both Land and Muser, taking on the variety of challenges of school and work has stemmed from wanting to grow as individuals. And though performing and firefighting seem to be on opposite ends of the scale, they say experiencing both is beneficial.  

“It gives me a larger perspective of what it’s like to really work your butt off and develop a real-world work ethic that can be helpful for musicians,” Land said.  

“It’s about being a well-rounded individual,” Muser added. “Having experiences in one area and experiences in another can really shape you to be open to more opportunities that will be engaging to the community.” 

The students plan to stick with music once they graduate from UNC. Muser will pursue her master’s and doctorate in musicology to teach music history and performance practice at a university. Land will work toward becoming a composer, though they both say there is still room for firefighting in their future.  

“I would love to do it consistently for a few years and it’ll always be something I know I’ll be welcomed back to. It’s really fulfilling so it is something I’d like to keep on doing for a while,” Muser said. 

- by Sydney Kern

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