Wildland fire school helps firefighters ready for real thing

By Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

After weathering a 12-hour deluge that left more than 2 inches of rainfall on Sweet Home Thursday, firefighters from the Interagency Wildland Firefighting School held June 23-27 at Sweet Home High School fanned out Friday to battle fires set purposely in a logged area off Jones Road.

About 300 firefighters, two-thirds of them newbies, participated, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Joanie Schmidgall. She said the week-long school included a lot of leadership training for squad and crew bosses, as well as basic techniques for beginners.

The week-long classroom and field-based training event is designed to prepare 120 first-year firefighters for the rigors of battling blazes, both in Oregon’s forests and in the rural-urban interface.

“Fire School provides essential training in wildland fire for new firefighters and offers seasoned firefighters a chance to expand their skills and explore leadership opportunities,” said Co-incident Commander Craig Pettinger, Sweet Home Unit Forester; Oregon Department of Forestry.

He and Schmidgall said they appreciated the partnership with Cascade Timber Consulting in Sweet Home, which provides the field site for real-life exercises.

“We have a great partnership with CTC,” Schmidgall said. “Every year they give us a field site with piles that we can do this live fire exercise on.”

Trainees from a variety of agencies across western Oregon included participants from Oregon Department of Forestry; four National Forests – the Willamette, Siuslaw, Umpqua and Rogue River-Siskiyou, and Bureau of Land Management.

They spend the first part of the week in an intensive classroom setting that includes several field sessions. Courses offered this year included beginning and intermediate fire behavior; communications; teamwork; leadership development; fire line safety; use of engines, tools and hose lays; and fire investigation.

Students slept in tents on the SHHS athletic field and ate their meals together, simulating a real fire camp.

The five-day course culminates in Friday’s live fire exercise, where they applied and developed their newly acquired skills and knowledge by suppressing and mopping-up a real fire.

Sweet Home ODF firefighters participating in the event included new recruits Marissa Kurtz, Kobe Olson, Hayden Nichol and Nikki Stafford.

Nichol, who graduated in June from Sweet Home High School and plans to study welding and fabricating at Linn-Benton Community College in the fall, said he’d learned a lot about fires – after surviving “a monsoon” the night before, camped out with the other participants on the SHHS athletic field.

Part of that has been how to use tools and equipment, he said, but I always thought that when you fight a forest fire, the longest part was fighting it until the flames were down. But I learned that what we’re doing right here takes the longest – mop-up.

“Every little branch, every little coal, to make sure it’s out, that it’s not glowing. They said a two-day fire can take months to mop up.”

Nichol said he plans to work for ODF for at least a couple of summers while he’s in school.

For Stafford, 41, who has served as a diabetic monitor for the Sweet Home School District and a coach for the high school Forestry Team, fire school included a lot of review, but “this is the first time I’ve actually gotten to act on it.”

She said the mop-up process also was not as familiar to her.

“This is my first time actually mopping up,” she said Friday as students busily used hoses to “wet mop” piles of burning branches and other debris.

She said she has enjoyed her first few weeks with the ODF summer crew.

“They are a family. They’ve been very welcoming. I was a little worried, especially since I was so much older than most of the crew members. But they just took me right in.”

Wildland Fire Supervisor Neil Miller said Friday’s exercise was “basically tying the whole week together, of being in the classroom.

“They were out here Wednesday and Thursday, working specifically with pumps and the hand tools, and then digging line,” he said. “It’s just tying together our whole season of training that we’ve had to this point.

“This is really the meat and potatoes of the whole fire school – to know what to do and how to use your equipment when we get an actual fire.”