“Behind you, behind you,” shouted a wildland firefighter trainee, suited up in flame-resistant Nomex gear and a hard hat. “Pulaski’s good, we got one – we’re good.”
For the culmination of basic wildland firefighter training, 50 recruits gathered in the Boise National Forest last Thursday for a practice burn. Having finished a week of classes at the College of Western Idaho in Nampa in the Southwest Idaho Fire Training program, the trainees came north of Idaho City for hands-on experience before they are forced into action this summer and fall.
Dry conditions throughout much of the West are causing concern at federal land agencies, which manage roughly 640 million acres in the U.S. All but 4% of that land lies in the West and Alaska, and much of it is increasingly vulnerable to severe fires.
As the pandemic has brought more Idahoans into the outdoors, the management agencies are anxious about the potential for human-caused fires exacerbating what is already expected to be a bad wildfire season.
“Last year we seemed to have a lot more of the public out in the woods recreating,” Ryan Shannahan, an assistant fire management officer on the Boise National Forest, told the Idaho Statesman. “We’re happy to see people out there recreating, but we also want to be cautious that people are taking care of their fires … We want people to be responsible.”
Drought conditions in Idaho are not as bad as they are in California and other Western spots, but that has not lessened apprehension in the state, and the need for more firefighters is always there.
Many wildland firefighters are college students who enter the forest at the end of May and and return to school in the fall. But recently, fires have been burning later into the fall, forcing some firefighters to ask their universities if they can return to campus a few weeks late, according to Venetia Gempler, a spokesperson for the Forest Service.
Along with the experience they provide via practice fires, prescribed burns such as one that took place last Thursday are a common tool used by wildland firefighters to reduce fuels and stave off more severe crown fires, which happen when the tops of trees ignite.
Training outdoors, the recruits are able to see how fires move along the landscape.
“No one likes sitting behind a computer,” Sam Roeber, a 19 year-old from Idaho City who was at Thursday’s training, told the Statesman. “We want to be out in the woods, making a difference.”
Climate change was a topic of discussion during Thursday’s training. With less precipitation in arid areas and hotter temperatures expanding and worsening fire seasons, scientists says the effects of a warmer world are becoming more apparent.
“I think (the) climate is just going to intensify,” Karen Dante-Wood, a technology transfer specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, told the Statesman. “You’re seeing insect and disease and bug kill, you’re seeing fires. I think people are making these connections now.”
Dante-Wood participated in the weeklong training course in Nampa that taught fire behavior and methods to combat the flames. Firefighters with the BLM, Forest Service and Idaho Department of Lands work in concert for the interagency program, according to Chris Weaver, the lead coordinator for the day’s exercises.
Fighters on multiple teams waited until shortly before noon before dousing a hillside of pine needles and low brush with flames. Each fighter carried a drip torch, which drops flaming fuel onto the ground.
Once the brush was burning well, the new class of firefighters arrived, digging a “scratch line” around the burning area in an effort to contain it. A line of a dozen or so trainees circled the flames, using shovels, pulaskis, hoes and rakes to clear leaves, pine needles and branches from the ground.
“The students get some experience navigating their way into fires and then actually suppressing, containing, controlling and mopping up a small piece of fire,” Shannahan said.
Wildland firefighters frequently work 12- or 14-hour days in what can be searing heat, meaning a strenuous few months could lie ahead.
“When people ask what we’re going to see this summer, I like to tell them, ‘I’ll tell you in December,’” Shannahan said. “We’re used to seeing fires here, and we expect it.”
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