Students get taste of smoke during training program’s final day

Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

Friday wasn’t typical fire weather, with cool temperatures and looming clouds.

But for approximately 150 young people on a hillside off the end of Ames Creek Road, the fire was real and they were there to put it out.

Friday was the final day of the week-long Mid-Willamette Valley Fire School, based at Sweet Home High School, where 135 tents sprouted on the baseball outfield between the gym and Weddle Bridge. This was the school’s 11th year of operation.

“Most of these are new firefighters,” said Alan Benson, a Eugene-based public information officer for the Bureau of Land Management, one of five state and federal agencies that cooperated in the program. “They’re putting into practice what they’ve been learning.”

The soon-to-be wildland firefighters spent the last week at Sweet Home High School training for the season, learning how to use firefighting tools, hoses, pumps, portable water tanks and many other aspects of firefighting strategy and safety.

The fire school, held for the seventh year in Sweet Home, included firefighters working for the Grand Ronde tribe, ODF, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife participated. Usually, firefighters from Oregon State University and private contractors participate as well, officials said.

While at fire school, trainees stay in a fire camp similar to those they’ll stay in while fighting fires. They take classroom instruction as well as receive hands-on training.

Friday’s exercise involved putting out fires set in slash piles on a recently logged land managed by Cascade Timber Consulting between the Ames Creek and Wiley Creek drainages.

Though the temperature hovered around 60 degrees and a downpour doused the area at one point during the morning, the young crews were learning that fires can be stubborn as they pulled the slash piles apart to get down to bare earth.

“We learned different types of things,” said Staci Grove, 18, of Sweet Home as she stood on a stump, watching as Adam Hummer, one of her teammates, pulled fuel off a slash pile that was starting to lean a bit. Grove was there to keep an eye on the pile and warn her teammates if it looked like it was going to move.

“Safety is first and foremost with everything we do out here,” Benson said. “You can get hurt pretty easily out here.”

Grove was one of five students from Sweet Home’s Oregon Department of Forestry office who were participating in the training. The others were Hummer, Rob Helfrich, Sara Brocard and Molly Dempster, a fire lookout from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Grove said she and her fellow students spent the week learning about weather, fuels, how handle the Pulaski fire axes and other tools both in the classroom and in the field. She said she and her colleagues spent much of the week working with students from Cottage Grove.

“I love it – being out here with all these people, being outside,” she said. “I’ve made some new friends.”

Benson said the beginning firefighters get a dose of reality at the exercise.

“This’ll separate people,” he said. “We had some people last year who said, ‘You know, this isn’t quite what I expected.’ You have to like getting dirty.”

Grove said she hopes to make some money to help with her college expenses.

“It’s going to be a big help,” she said. “A lot of the teachers said they paid for half of their college by doing this.”