Students feel the heat at fire school

“You are the most important thing out here. I want to see you today, tomorrow and at the end of fire season,” Dean Vendrasco said, as a dozen or more young faces stared back at him with anticipation.

Their bright yellow fire shirts were still clean but before the end of the day, they wouldn’t be as more than 200 employees from numerous government agencies put three days of classroom experience to the test with hands-on training Friday east of Sweet Home.

The event was the culmination of the second annual fire school in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

This year’s school posed a challenge in that there were nearly double the number of students of a year ago.

“There’s nothing more valuable than you out here,” Vendrasco emphasized. “Nothing! Not a house, not a tree. Nothing! I want you to have a good, safe and profitable summer.”

Vendrasco knows about fire seasons. He has spent 25 years in fire management with the Willamette National Forest. He is based out of the McKenzie district.

Vendrasco called the school a wonderful, interagency project.

“It just keeps getting better,” he said. “It’s what we ought to be doing.”

Vendrasco said there has been a big turnover in fire fighters nationwide and this year’s crews will be green.

“Agencies have spent a couple years visiting colleges and high schools and it’s starting to pay off,” he said.

Lee Vaughn, assistant ODF forester, said last year’s school attracted 115 students. This year, that number swelled to 210.

“The feds have more new hires this year and have added a lot of positions,” Vaughn said. “I think most of the students came from the Willamette National Forest.”

The school’s success is based on the amount of work put into it by a cadre planning staff of 40, Vaughn said.

Vaughn said the school is especially important this season due to drought conditions throughout the northwest.

“Many of the predictions for rain and snow last winter were 180 degrees wrong,” Vaughn said. “We’re below normal on rainfall and higher than normal temperatures. Basically, we’re having August situations right now. Fuel moistures are fluctuating. East winds are causing as much or more concern than temperature. The winds are sapping what little moisture we did have.”

Vaughn said he was impressed with the efforts of the cadre but equally impressed with the quality of the students.

“They have paid attention, they are following instructions very well and listening,” Vaughn said.

Dave Warren, fire management officer on the Detroit Ranger District, said nationwide fire events of last summer caused concern among agencies and highlighted a need to ramp up staffing.

“Fire fighting forces were reduced over a number of years,” Warren said. “We fell well below efficient levels. We’re now rebuilding.”

Warren said that in years past, government agencies could count on support from private contracting companies or from logging companies.

Many of those companies are now gone and equipment sold off which created a void in the fire fighting game plan.

“There used to be a huge amount of rolling stock available,” said the 31-year-fire fighting veteran.

Warren said this year’s weather conditions are creating a unique potential fire factor.

He said areas like Detroit Reservoir, which is sorely short of water, now has areas of patchy grasses and rotted stumps that could easily be ignited by a careless cigarette smoker, camper or lightning.

“There’s more to fore fuels than just trees,” Warren said. “Over time, things build up. In wet years, it’s not a problem. But this year, it could very well be a problem.”

Another significant factor in a dry year is the urban forest interface…homes built in or near timber lands.

“People need to create fire buffers on their properties,” Warren urged.

Carelessness could lead to disaster, Warren said.

“During the third week of May, we found 20 abandoned campfires on the Detroit district alone,” Warren said.

Cascade Timber Consulting provided the 70 acre training site for Friday’s classes. Milt Morn represented the company at the project.

Moran said CTC is anticipating a dry season and is taking steps to educate its employees and contracted crews on fire safety.

“We want all people trained and safe,” Moran said. “We’re happy to provide this site. D and S Contracting was actually working this site and put in the parking areas and turnarounds. I think everyone knows how important this training can be.”

Local crew members said the school is a valuable tool for them.

Casey Aiello, a member of the ODF fire suppression team this summer, is a first-year fire fighter.

He was busy learning how to protect himself from fire by using a fire shelter. Trainers used a large fan to simulate the wind that is whipped up by the fires as other trainers pulled and tugged on the shelters to simulate what it feels like to be pelted by the event.

“I think this has been the most important thing so far,” the recent SHHS graduate said. “It’s useful information.”

Laura Fritz of Corvallis will work on an engine crew this summer and said she enjoyed learning about water pumping.

Abby Dalton, who comes back to the crew for her second year, said she’s learning more about become a crew boss.

“We’re learning more about what to expect from fires,” she said.

Robb Ginn, whose main job is in mines and minerals, said the school provide students with a “positive, real feeling. They get a lot of information in a few days rather than spread out over the entire summer. They learn what to expect and what can happen.”