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Texas A&M Forest Service Task Force Leader Thrives On Challenges

SMITHVILLE, Texas: If you’re looking for Colton Curles, there’s a good chance you’ll find him outside, wherever there’s work.

“I don’t do well sitting still,” said Curles, Texas A&M Forest Service Task Force Coordinator for the agency’s Central Branch.

Curles, who oversees 11 full-time and four seasonal employees of the Lost Pines Task Force, said his favorite part is the work.

“There’s really nothing like being out with the crew,” he said. “We spend a lot of time together, and it’s especially satisfying to see the impact we have.”

Answering the call

Curles began working for Texas A&M Forest Service as an 18-year-old seasonal Resource Specialist. The work primarily focused on fuel mitigation and prescribed burning, and he said he found it rewarding. He also worked as a seasonal employee for Lake Travis Fire Rescue and went to school.

“I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” Curles said. “But after three or four semesters, it seemed pretty clear that I was already doing what I wanted to do.”

He became a full-time Resource Specialist in 2014 and was named Task Force Coordinator in the Smithville office in 2019. 

The work is challenging but meaningful, he said. “There are a lot of jobs where you can help people, but there aren’t a lot of jobs where you can see the immediate impact of what you’ve done,” Curles said. “When you’re working on a fuels project, you can turn around at the end of the day and look at the work you’ve done and see that you’re making a difference.”

Developing a team

The Lost Pines Task Force covers a 24-county area of diverse landscape, including a portion of the Gulf Coast, the Post Oak Savannah, the Lost Pines, and parts of the Hill Country. The team responded to 156 requests for wildfire assistance across the region in the fiscal year ending in August, with crew members supporting wildfire and all-hazards response requests throughout the state.

As Task Force Coordinator Curles said, his priority is to develop the effectiveness of the team. For much of the past year, Curles filled in as Assistant Chief for Central Branch, coordinating agency and out-of-state resources, moving personnel and equipment to staging areas based on risk assessments, and supporting requests to provide personnel for statewide programs.

“My main job is to ensure the team has everything it needs to succeed. That’s first and foremost,” Curles said. “The rest of my job is responding to wildfires and doing anything that I can to make that part of the job easier, which means fuels mitigation projects, training, and building relationships with partners.”

Curles also coordinates training for agency employees and partners while working to build relationships across the region.

The task force aims to offer 15 to 20 training courses each year for other partners, land management agencies, and fire departments, with Curles involved in most of those classes.

Including other agencies and departments in training helps Curles foster relationships that can be powerful in coordinating an emergency response.

“The best way to have a good relationship when we have a fire is to have one already before there’s a fire,” Curles said. “If we can build relationships through prescribed burning and fuels management projects, it makes things flow much smoother when there’s a situation requiring cooperation.”

Making a difference

In addition to wildfire response, the crew conducts fuel mitigation projects throughout the area, which aim to reduce the intensity of wildfires and make response efforts safer.

“We try to prepare to handle as many fire calls as we can,” Curles said. “But a lot of our time is spent on work that is trying to prevent those calls from coming in.”

The work can be grueling and involves removing overgrown vegetation with chainsaws and mulchers.

“The focus is on ladder fuels, and in this area, that’s typically yaupon,” Curles said, “Ladder fuels allow a fire on the ground to make it to the canopy of a tree by climbing through that vegetation, so we’re really trying to remove that from the landscape.”

Fuels mitigation work is where Curles finds the greatest pleasure.

“Fuels work is always in my hands, and I get back exactly what I put into it,” he said. “It has an immediate sense of gratification.”

One project that Curles is particularly proud of is the crew’s work in and around Bastrop and Buescher state parks. The goal is to create shaded fuel breaks along park roads, including one that connects the two parks through private property.

The work, which started in 2018, is about 30% complete.

“It’s all done by hand,” Curles said. “We’re making good progress, and it feels good to see the improvement in the landscape.”

The project is one of many the Lost Pines Task Force is working on to decrease the potential impacts of wildfire and improve aesthetics and public safety features.

“It’s really just one of those things that makes you feel good about your job,” Curles said. “Everyone wants to have pride in what they do, but seeing the direct impact we’re having on the landscape and the community and knowing that our efforts are helping to protect the public, that’s just a huge motivator for me.”

Sense of family

Curles, who grew up in Smithville, was introduced to Texas A&M Forest Service at an early age. His father, Robbie Curles, began working as a Resource Specialist for the agency just before Colton was born. Robbie Curles retired from the agency in 2016.

That personal connection to the agency isn’t something Curles takes for granted.

“I grew up around this task force, so I have a lot of pride that I’m able to be a part of it,” he said. “And the opportunity to lead the group means something special to me. It’s a milestone.”

Watching his father working on wildfires has also helped Curles navigate the job, particularly the demands for his time. Curles and his wife, Sterlyng, expect their second child this year.

“The biggest key for me — and it’s still a work in progress — is being present wherever I am,” Curles said. “If I’m at home, I must prioritize being at home. If I’m with the crew, I have to prioritize being with the crew. And if I’m in my office doing paperwork, I try to prioritize being at the office.”

It’s essential, he said, that his crew knows family comes first. “The job does ask a lot of them, but that doesn’t mean they have to sacrifice a personal life,” he said.

Leading by example

Curles credits a long list of mentors, including agency retirees Rich Gray and Jimmy Mullis, with establishing the values of a strong work ethic.

“They really set a standard in the agency for what hard work looks like and what dedication looks like,” Curles said. “I learned a lot about leadership from them, and that’s something I’m trying to emulate every day.”

Curles said he wants to sustain those lessons by encouraging others to seek out leaders they can learn from.

“Find those people who are dedicated to what they do and are really good at it and absorb all you can,” he said. “And be patient. Every day is a chance to learn something new. It’s a continual process. You’re never going to be exactly where you want to be. You have to improve and be better than the day before.”

Mullis, who retired from the agency in 2023, was Assistant Chief for Central Branch when Curles was a seasonal employee before becoming a full-time Resource Specialist. He said Curles made an immediate impression as a self-starter who didn’t require a lot of supervision.

“He’s very dependable,” Mullis said. “What I appreciate most about him is his willingness to work and get things done.”

Mullis promoted Curles to his current role as Task Force Coordinator and credits his maturity for helping him thrive in the agency.

“When that opportunity came up, there was no one else that I would have considered within our group that would have been able to take on that responsibility,” Mullis said. “He wants to do the right thing and expects other people to do the right thing. He wants Texas A&M Forest Service to be an agency he can be proud of and move forward with. He’s all of the things you want an employee to be.”

Texas A&M Forest Service Interim Director Al Davis said Curles represents the agency’s future.

“It gives me great pride and pleasure to talk to him, listen to him, and stand back and watch how he operates,” Davis said. “He and others like him provide strong reassurance that the agency is in great hands, and we, as the agency’s leaders, have a responsibility to prepare them, mentor them, and let them do their jobs.”