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Impressions of Wildland Fire School

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Photo by Amanda Pfeifly Trainees in full PPE -- personal protection gear.

Wildland fires are making history in Canada and burning extensively in Alaska. Have you ever wondered what training is required to be a basic firefighter? Here is a narrative from a recent firefighter trainee, Amanda Pfeifly, serving as an intern with the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests.

What does it take to be a Wildland Firefighter? This may be a question many of you might have asked. There are many training courses that qualify a person for various roles and jobs in wildland fire suppression, prescribed fire and fuels reduction efforts. They all begin with training.

The first courses on your journey to becoming a federal wildland firefighter are named S-130, "Firefighter Training" and S-190 "Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior." These courses were put together by the NWCG (National Wildfire Coordinating Group). They are taught in a week-long class, generally Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5p.m. The courses are taught by knowledgeable and experienced personnel, beginning in a classroom setting followed by field day trainings.

The first course, S-190 "Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior," begins on the first day of class. In this course you go over subjects such as basic concepts of wildland fire. This course basically covers all of the factors that influence a fire, including topography, weather and fuels, and gives the student knowledge of safe and effective fire management activities. At the end of the course you are given a test over the material.

The next three days of the week involve the S-130 course in which classroom and field training are involved. The S-130 course book is called "Firefighter Training." This course goes over all the basics a student would have to know to be on the fireline; some of these things include terminology, preparedness, watch-out situations, suppression, etc. It also emphasizes the 10 and 18 standards that keep firefighters out of situations where they may need to use their fire shelters LCES-Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones).

The third day of the class involves working with experienced firefighters through "hands-on" activates that teach how to use hand tools, firing devices, pumps and hoses, and radio communication. The students travel from station to station learning about all the different kinds of tools used in fire management.

The fourth day focuses on learning how to properly use and deploy a fire shelter. Fire shelters are not designed for direct flame contact and are carried at all times by all personnel on the fireline. A fire shelter is a "last resort" safety action for a firefighter and/or fire crew when a fire is too close to get to a safety zone or is approaching too rapidly to escape.

The fire shelter is comprised of two-layered aluminum, woven silica and fiberglass shelters that reflect radiant heat emitted by a fire passing through the deployment area and provide cooler, breathable air to protect a firefighter's lungs and airway.

The fifth day of training is when the proverbial rubber hits the road. The first thing is a final exam where trainees are given two hours to start and finish the exam. After that the recruits put on all their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which includes a hard hat, gloves, Nomex (flame retardant) shirt and pants, leather boots, eye protection and ear protection. The trainees are also issued "Initial Attack" packs to wear and carry, depending on their level and qualifications. Once all their PPE is on, it's "showtime" in the forest!

Once on site for the training, the recruits put all the information they have learned in the last week to use. They practice how to dig fireline (an earthen-created barrier) around a fire. This is constructed by a 20-person crew using hand tools to make a 12- to 18-inch-wide line in the ground (down to mineral soil) to stop the fire from spreading.

The trainees learn to take orders and how to use communication effectively, which is a huge part in maintaining a safe fire environment. Some of the terms used when constructing a fireline are: "Moving," "Holding," "Take Less," and more. Commands are sent down the line to make sure everyone hears and understands the orders and safety concerns, and retains it, by repeating the command to the next person.

Trainees also learn to lay hose, which means learning how to distribute hoses out to the fireline and connect, carry and reassemble them. They also do weather advisory practices and learn what to do in different weather scenarios. After creating the line and learning how to effectively work on the fireline, the end of the day is spent learning about rehabilitating the damage done by digging line and about the cleanup process after a fire.

The field day is a very exciting day for all the new trainees; it is full of excitement and a test of all the new knowledge and skills gained over the past week. However, all is not done. Recruits also have to pass a physical test comprised of carrying a 45 pound pack and walking 3 miles with the pack in 45 minutes or less to qualify for "line duty." It's harder than one might thing.

After all this, the tests are graded and the recruit's field skills are evaluated, then there is one more test to take and pass online before a "red card" that qualifies the firefighter's credentials to go out on a fire. When all this is accomplished, the recruits are qualified as firefighters to participate on a "type II" hand crew.

These are also just the beginning courses for wildland firefighting. There are many more courses that firefighters can take to become more effective in their skills and responsibilities. As firefighters gain more experience on the line and through fire assignments, and prove their skills, they can move up in levels of qualifications and take on different fire jobs.

So if you have any interest in becoming a wildland firefighter, go to your local Forest Service or BLM offices and get started on your way! It is a great career choice, or just a temporary job to help protect our public lands.

Read more from:
North Fork
Wildland Fire
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