When Lauren Bradley Chapelle '08 fought her first wildfire in 2020—the Bighorn Fire in the Santa Catalina Mountains in Coronado National Forest in Tucson, Arizona—she was overwhelmed with a passion she'd never experienced. And it's what led her to start her own private firefighting company, Sabino Fire, the next year.
A New York City native, Chapelle knew nothing of wildfires growing up, but even as a city kid she was attracted to nature. She briefly attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, but left after her sophomore year for a WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) program in Argentina.
When she landed back in New York in 2012, Chapelle says she felt lost in her career direction. She'd always been a horse person, so when she came across an online ad for a stable-hand position in Tucson—featuring free room and board—she jumped at the opportunity. After a brief stint working in the breeding barn, Chapelle changed course again and took a job in risk management at a construction company. The work was uninspiring; it didn't feel right.
Shortly after the pandemic began, another job posting caught Chapelle's eye—this time it was a company called Elephant Head seeking volunteer firefighters.
"Maybe it's because I have two older brothers, but I've always been drawn to adrenaline-fueled, male-dominated careers," Chapelle says. "I'd been thinking of taking an EMT class, but it was something I couldn't do without volunteering as a firefighter, so this felt like a logical next step."
After completing her training at Elephant Head, Chapelle was called to the Santa Catalina Mountains in Coronado National Forest to fight her first fire in the summer of 2020. She never looked back.
"I loved it like nothing before," she says. "The work is physical and exhausting, but we're protecting homes, communities, and natural resources. It's incredibly rewarding."
As she fought more fires, Chapelle became familiar with the firefighting industry, which consists of federal agencies, municipality departments, and private contractors. After learning that private contractors—companies that provide wildland firefighting services to the federal government—are notably lucrative, the idea sparked.
"I thought, I could do this. I could have my own contracting engine," Chapelle says. "Year after year, dispatch centers across the country are depleting their entire list of available resources. There are too many fires to fight and not enough firefighters to fight them. So private contractors play a crucial role."
Launching a company during the pandemic was no easy feat, but Chapelle managed it with perseverance and a savvy mindset. She founded Sabino Fire in 2021, and the company responds to incidents across the country. Chapelle owns two new trucks—her previous ones were named Olga and Cash Cow—and has grown Sabino to six employees.
"We work on a contract basis," she explains. "The contracts are on a three-year cycle and in that span, we get called to fires and stay there as long as we're required. [For example,] last year I was out fighting fires from June until the end of November and never once came back home. We just sleep in our tents or a big semitruck.
"Wildfires are a huge, coordinated effort," Chapelle adds. "They bring in mobile showers, mobile laundry, mobile kitchens, mobile sleeping quarters, internet, etc."
In October, Chapelle was the recipient of an Amber Grant, a $10,000 prize awarded to her as the founder of Sabino Fire. Chapelle plans to use the grant to increase the water tank capacity of her engines and to buy new, top-of-the-line protective gear for her employees, who are always her priority.
"My firefighters are the heart of Sabino, the backbone," Chapelle says. "I want to make sure they have access to reliable equipment, because nothing's more important than everybody coming home safely at the end of the day."