Firefighters prepare for summer

David Preston of the McKenzie River Ranger District watched Friday morning as approximately 200 young firefighters scrambled over a hillside on Green Mountain, building firebreaks around smoking slash and rolling hose.

“Turn your Pulaski over,” he yelled to one young man, who was carrying his combination axe and mattock tool with the axe side up. “We don’t want anybody cutting themselves.”

Preston was one of some 50 instructors and support personnel who were at the site, which was logged last fall, for the final day of the annual 2010 interagency wildland firefighter training school.

The students, representing the Grande Ronde Tribe, the Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Forestry, the Willamette National Forest and US Fish and Wildlife Service, spent four days in classes at Sweet Home High School, where they camped on the athletic field and ate in the cafeteria, learning the basic theory of fighting fires. The fire school is run like an actual fire camp, with students sleeping in tents on the athletic field at Sweet Home High School.

Firefighters attend courses in basic fire behavior, map and compass use, fire behavior and safety. They receive hands-on training using fire engines, portable pumps and hand tools.

This year, Preston said, they spent more time in the field.

“There’s only so much you can get out of a book,” he said. “We broke it up a little bit. We tried to keep it interesting. We’ve been out three days in a row.”

For instance, he said, on Monday students learned how to use fire shelters on the hillside rather than on the athletic field lawn. Instructors used fans to create the kinds of wind that firefighters would often experience in a real wildfire situation.

Friday morning brought a high fog layer, which provided more opportunity to learn because there wasn’t a big hurry to get the fires put out, Preston said.

“It lets us practice a little more,” he said.

The Willow Crew included five Sweet Home ODF firefighters: Harold Frieze, Matt Grove, Mitch Grove, Russell Deurr and Matt Grimes.

Deurr, a Lebanon High School graduate who is in his second year with the Sweet Home ODF, said he and Grimes were training to be squad bosses, so they focused on more on leadership and communication than just basic firefighting techniques.

“It really wasn’t fire-based,” he said. “It was leadership, real-life situations.

On Thursday, for instance, they learned how to investigate a burn.

“We did a couple of little burns and watched the fire speed. It was tedious. I didn’t realize that. You have to look at minute details.”

Matt Grove, who is on this summer’s ODF Fuels Reduction Crew, said he and the other first-year firefighters focused heavily on safety and how to use firefighting tools.

He said that a lot of the training was just how to work together as a team.

“Learning how everything goes together has been good,” he said. “It takes a little bit to learn how the team works. Otherwise, it’s just basically manual labor.”

The beginning of fire season means restrictions will be imposed on recreational and work activities in the forest. Industrial operations are required to have firefighting equipment on site. Since restrictions may vary, it is advisable to check with the nearest ODF office for rules specific to the local area.

Industrial Fire Precaution levels (IFPL) are part of ODF’s closure system that regulates industrial activity in the forests west of the Cascade Mountains. When fire season takes effect, the district will be at an IFPL 1, which imposes the fewest restrictions and generally requires a fire watch at industrial forest operation sites. IFPL details can be found at: http://www.oregon.gov/ODF/FIRE/ifpl.shtml. You can also check the daily IFPL level by calling (541) 726-3555.

In eastern Linn County, regulated-use closures will be in effect within one-half mile of the Quartzville Road from Green Peter Dam to the U.S. Forest Service’s Willamette National Forest boundary. Under this closure, campfires are permitted only at designated locations and on sand or gravel bars that lie between the water and high water marks where there is no vegetation. Use of fireworks is prohibited in this corridor.

ODF Wildland Fire Supervisor Chad Calderwood said forestry officials are not sure what to expect, except that the light fuels have grown vigorously during the unseasonably heavy rain of the last couple of months.

“This is a different season,” he said. “Right now we have a strong drying trend for at least 10 days out. Marks Ridge and other hillsides are starting to dry out, But there are storm systems out there that could still come in.”

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