Firefighters ready to go. Agencies develop ties as they put on Fire School

Scott Swanson

The annual Fire School in Sweet Home ended Friday with the customary live burn exercise, this year held on Marks Ridge property managed by Cascade Timber Consultants.

Co-Incident Commander Paul Hiebert of the U.S. Forest Service said the number of students this year was higher than normal, approximately 210.

Hiebert and others said that not only does the school attract students from around the state, it gives fire officials a chance to work together and build working relationships.

The students mostly came from the Willamette Valley, but some hailed from as far away as Medford, including a 10-man crew made up of military veterans who are being trained to fight fires for the Bureau of Land Management.

Hiebert said that CTC’s cooperation is what makes Sweet Home’s fire school stand out, because students get more hands-on experience than they do at other firefighter training programs.

“What CTC does for the fire school is immeasurable,” Hiebert said. “The field sites are close to town. That’s a big, big reason why people want to come to this fire school.”

Veteran instructor Tom O’Connor of the Oregon Department of Forestry station in Philomath, who said he has attended every fire school held in Sweet Home, back to when they were held at Foster School, said Friday’s exercise was “perfect for these newbies.”

After four days of classroom instruction and field exercises, the final “incident” had to be realistic, he said. In addition to the 200-plus firefighters, the exercise included eight fold-up water tanks and gasoline-powered pumps, a bulldozer, several water tankers and more.

“We have to create a four-hour fire incident to deal with, where they have to dig line and get it 100 percent out. At 2 p.m., when they get on the buses, they need to have this done.”

Hiebert said another advantage of the fire school is that fire officials from USFS, ODF, the Bureau of Land Management, CTC and Starker private forestland managers, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, all of whom were active in this year’s school, can get used to working together.

“That way, when fires do start and we respond, all the fire leaders here have worked many, many hours together. It makes us very efficient. We have a great group.”

Watching his students clear fire lines and lay hose to put water on fires set in piles of wood left after a logging operation on Marks Ridge, O’Connor said the school helps maintain the state’s ability to deal with fire. “We have X amount of people retiring,” he said. “This is the next generation.”