JEFFERSON CITY, MO, MAY 15, 2023 – Erik Otto, a park coordinator with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Division of State Parks, has been selected as the department’s Team Member of the Month for May 2023. Otto was selected for his service to the department and for his efforts to help contain a wildfire at Onondaga Cave State Park, near Leasburg.
On the afternoon of Feb. 28, 2023, a hiker reported a wildfire near the park’s Special Use Area. After park team members confirmed the report, they called 911 and began pooling resources to respond to the fire. Otto was asked to respond from nearby Robertsville State Park.
Otto is an experienced “burn boss” who helps coordinate prescribed fires as part of his park duties and is familiar with the area. He quickly gathered the tools and supplies he thought may be needed for the response, based on his experience and the possibility that firefighting operations may need to take place at night.
A prescribed fire is a detail-oriented operation that depends heavily on advanced planning to be safely executed. With wildfires, plans cannot be made in consideration of weather conditions, time of day or available resources, making responding to them much more difficult to navigate.
Upon arriving at the park, Otto was designated as the incident commander. He formulated a plan to immediately begin backlighting from the emergency fire line and coordinated with the Cuba and Leasburg fire departments, as well as the on-site park team, to put the plan into action.
“Erik was quick on his feet and made several small decisions in preparing for the response that translated into a big difference in the outcome,” said Alex Kovac, deputy regional director of the Division of State Parks’ eastern region, who nominated Otto for the award. “His experience in dealing with fire and his knowledge of how to safely execute a prescribed fire translated well into what was his first experience with a wildfire.”
The firefighting measures were effective and six hours after the initial report, the blaze was fully contained. Otto’s skill and decisiveness played a large role in preventing the 70-acre wildfire from becoming even more destructive.
Otto joined the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in May 2006 and resides in Union.