Live exercise in Sweet Home gets firefighters ready for real thing


July 3, 2017

SWEET HOME Oregon Department of Forestry crew members are, from left, Gracie Olson, Hailey Hummer, Dillon Stutzman, Brandon Whaley, Justin Wolfe, Jonathan Fisher, Daniel Virtue, John SIms and Justin White.

Fire season and regulated use restrictions officially took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, June 29.

That same week, approximately 250 firefighters and 50 instructors and other personnel gathered at the Sweet Home High School for the 21st annual five-day Mid-Willamette Valley Interagency Wildland Fire School that ended in a live fire exercise Friday east of Sweet Home.

According to Joanie Schmidgall, public information officer with the US Forest Service, Sweet Home Ranger Station, Sweet Home is a good central location for all the different agencies that are involved.

“It really is interagency,” Schmidgall said.

Firefighters from U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the Bureau of Land Management all participated in the week of fire school.

The students took classes from all the different instructors and different agencies.

“Its a great opportunity to come together every year, to learn from each other, and to do team building,” Schmidgall said. “It really pushes the inter-agency cooperation.”

The first portion of the week was classroom-style learning at the Sweet Home High School, focusing on basic fire behavior, teamwork, use of equipment and safety.

Cascade Timber Consulting provided a field site for a live exercise on Friday, June 30.

“The biggest (reason the school is held in Sweet Home) is the land that Cascade Timber provides,” Schmidgall said.

Co-Incident Commander Shawn Sheldon said the live fire exercise “significantly enhances” the students’ training experience.

“Working in smoke, hiking through uneven terrain and working closely with crew members to dig fire line are all things they’ll experience this season as wild land firefighters.”

Two-thirds of the students were brand new firefighters and the rest came for team-building exercises or special training.

When the new firefighters finish fire school, they are qualified as a firefighter and can be deployed all over Oregon or even all over the country on wildland fires, Schmidgall said.

ODF’s Sweet Home Unit has five new members this year: Gracie Olson, Dillon Stutzman, Daniel Virtue, John Simms and Justin White.

Simms said he first encountered wildland firefighting as a volunteer with the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District, where he did structural fire fighting. He would like to do wildland firefighting seasonally.

“I hope to be a career firefighter,” he said.

It was the second year at Fire School for Sweet Home High School graduate Hailey Hummer. She is currently attending Western Oregon and said firefighting is a great job for college students.

She got into firefighting because it was a family thing –her dad, brother and cousins have done firefighting.

“It is exciting, it’s fun, it’s hard work,” Hummer said. “You build a family within your group and I really like it.”

Sam Stout, a squad leader, attended Fire School in 2010 and returned to take the engine boss and crew boss classes.

Stout, of Alsea, came to ODF to “see what it was all about.”

He currently works at Philomath ODF office.

The live field exercise he said, was “lighting practice fires, lighting piles. Get these kids some fire experience, see how warm it is and see what it is all about.”

Craig Pettinger, unit forester for ODF in Sweet Home, said the upcoming fire season is hard to predict because lightening is so unpredictable.

“I’ll tell you how fire season was in October,” he joked.

According to Schmidgall, Oregon had more rain this winter than normal and snow pack is about 130 percent of average.

The extra precipitation causes brush and the understory to grow more, which, when it dries out, creates more dry fuel.

August and September will likely still be the peak fire season.

“Even though it was a really wet winter, we really don’t want people to get complacent with camp fires,” Schmidgall warned.

“There still is danger and there still could be a very active fire season.”

Photo by Jessica Hurst OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY crew members work on a live fire exercise


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