By Lindsay R. Mohlere
Private wildfire fighting crews, unlike the U.S. Forest Service and BLM crews that were temporarily shortstopped by the federal 90-day hiring freeze, are beginning to ramp up their recruitment programs for seasonal workers. Despite record rainfall and snowfall throughout the Pacific Northwest, these crews aren’t gazing into the crystal ball wondering if it’s going to be another long, hot summer.
“We prepare for the worst and hope for the best. There’s fire somewhere, and we can’t afford to be unprepared,” says Kevin Donham, VP of Operations for PatRick Environmental Inc. (one of the largest private fire service companies headquartered in Oregon).
Most outfits actually begin training in January, offering refresher courses for returning members and full-time staff. The wildfire division of Miller Timber Inc. of Philomath, Oregon, like several other crews, includes leadership training and advanced coursework for supervisors.
Heidi Cleveland, Miller’s Fire Operations manager, further emphasized early preparedness. “We hire 125 to 150 people for seasonal work. We have to on-board all of those folks in a six-month time period. From January 1 until first fire dispatch of the season, you need to have everyone trained, certified, and ready for deployment 24/7.
Red Card Boot Camp
New-hire recruitment and training hit high gear around Spring Break when college students are looking for summer jobs, and the adrenalin blast of fighting fires comes knocking.
Wildland firefighting is a dangerous and physically demanding occupation. Being on the business end of a Pulaski is tough, dirty work. The terrain is rugged and usually steep. It’s blistering hot, and the air is thick with smoke and embers.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) sets the standard for wildland firefighter training. The same basic courses are given across all agencies involved in wildland firefighting and controlled burning.
Training usually starts with some sort of orientation to the fire service, physical requirements, and the training agenda.
The real nitty-gritty gets going with what is referred to as the pack test, a competitive three-mile hike, which a recruit must complete within 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound backpack. The test is required for all federal and most state and private agencies. It takes place on level ground and is designed to test the muscular strength and aerobic endurance of the firefighter.
Because the physical demands of the job are so critical, many companies also have their own minimum requirements like multi-mile trail runs and a certain number of push-ups and sit-ups completed in one minute.
Applicants who have passed the physical fitness test return to the classroom and begin the 40-hour training academy. The course work includes Firefighter Training (S-130) and Introduction to Fire Behavior (S-190). Two other certifications, the L-180 Human Factors in the Wildland Fire Service and I-100 Introduction to ICS (Incident Command System) are included within the standard course work.
Firefighters are also required by the NWCG PMS 310-1 to take the online independent study exam FEMA IS-700, a National Incident Management System (NIMS) course administered by FEMA.
The coursework will prepare recruits to qualify for the NWCG certifications necessary to become a wildland firefighter.
After they pass the Work Capacity Test, they are eligible to be given the Red Card, which certifies that the recruit is trained and qualified to perform specific jobs on a wildland fire.
Many logging operations also have their crews become certified for Red Cards.
Be Smart. Be Firewise.
The wildland-urban interface (WUI) is a big problem. If you haven’t heard the term, it refers to the space between unoccupied land and human development. Communities, housing developments, single-dwelling structures, and commercial buildings located in and surrounded by wildlands are at risk of fire.
About one-third of all homes in the continental U.S. are in the WUI. In 2015, wildfire devoured nearly 5,000 structures, of which more than half were homes.
Since humans cause more than 80 percent of wildfires, it’s easy to see where the growth of communities pushing farther out into wild lands and the increase of outdoor recreation opportunities doubles the risk factors. Add climate change, drought, and years of forest mismanagement to the mix, and the risks become explosive.
Across the nation, fire departments and fire services recognize the threat, but their main task is to protect lives, not property.
According the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), if you live in the UWI, there is something you can do to help protect your home or property from going up in smoke and becoming a heartbreaking statistic.
The NFPA’s specific program is called Firewise.
Supported by the U.S. Forest Service, Firewise was launched in 1997 to provide the best information about wildfire safety for homes to a national audience. Its basic goal is to educate homeowners about wildfires and how proactive steps can reduce the fuel loads in ignition areas. Simple tasks like keeping the area around a building free of any vegetation, trimming trees that would prevent them from falling onto the structure or road, and using non-flammable roofs are the big three for home protection.
With fire season on its way, checking out Firewise (www.firewise.org) or other such organizations, along with discussing your property in the UWI with local fire departments, is your first step to prevention and protection. It’s the smart thing to do.
NOTE: Wildland firefighting training starts soon.
That’s a wrap. Stay safe out there.
(Source: InciWeb, National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), Wire Service Reports)
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture
On the Cover
Photo of this Link-Belt was taken by Lindsay R. Mohlere at the Henderson logging operation, based in Wallowa, Oregon.
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