Faces of CNM: Matthew Peña

Matthew is a CNM Fire Science instructor who spends his summers on the ground working as a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service
May 24, 2022

Matthew Peña started working for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildland firefighter when he was 18 years old. More than 20 years later, he still spends every summer fighting wildfires but is also a full-time Fire Science instructor at CNM.

Matthew grew up in Cuba, New Mexico, and says that early on wildland firefighting seemed like a good way to make some money. He never imagined it would become his career.

“It was supposed to just be a summer job to help pay for college, but I ended up falling in love with it,” Matthew says.

To be able to fight fires, Matthew became an elementary school teacher so he had time off over the summer. He spent 10 years teaching in Albuquerque and then in 2016 made the jump to CNM as a full-time Fire Science instructor. 

“The fact that I’m still active as a wildland firefighter helps my teaching because fires are continuing to evolve and change,” Matthew says. “It isn’t the same as it was 15-20 years ago. Back in 2001, if we had a 1,000-acre fire, that was considered a huge fire. It’s still a huge fire, but that doesn’t raise people’s eyebrows as much anymore.”

Earlier this month, Matthew spent two weeks working at the Albuquerque Interagency Dispatch Center where he helped coordinate resources such as helicopters, planes, and fire engines that were being sent to the major wildfires currently burning in New Mexico. One of those wildfires, the Calf Canyon—Hermit's Peak fire, which has burned over 300,000 acres and destroyed over 300 homes, is the largest in New Mexico history.

“Right now it feels like we’re about a month ahead of time. We normally wouldn’t expect this kind of fire behavior until about mid-June,” Matthew says.

When he’s out in the field, Matthew works on a Type 6 Wildland Engine, which is a truck capable of carrying 300-350 gallons of water and designed specifically to handle rough terrain. He anticipates his first on-the-ground firefighting assignment this summer will be somewhere in New Mexico, Arizona, or Colorado, but that could change. 

“I never know when I’m going to be on a fire. We could get dispatched at any moment,” Matthew says. “We’re a national resource, so we could be sent anywhere in the U.S.”

During his time with the U.S. Forest Service, Matthew says he’s traveled to over 20 states and made friends all over the country. Those experiences, combined with the reward of getting to help other people, is why he loves his job. Matthew encourages anyone interested in becoming a wildland firefighter to give it a try.

“There’s a big shortage of wildland firefighters in the U.S.,” Matthew says. “Even if you don’t want to be a firefighter for the rest of your life, you can still get your Wildland Firefighter Type 1 Certificate through CNM and just do it during the summer while you’re going to school.”

Learn more about CNM’s Fire Science program here. Learn how you can help the communities facing fires in Northern New Mexico here.