Firefighters take part in annual wildfire training
‘To actually get out here and feel the weight of your pack, your tool in the dirt ... that gets your mind thinking it’s fire season again’
Firefighters with the Summit Fire & EMS and Red, White & Blue fire districts met up for a series of joint wildfire training exercises this week, hoping to reacquaint themselves with the weight of their packs and brush up on the basics.
Firefighters made their way to a wooded area above the High Country Training Center, off County Shops Road east of Frisco, for their annual wildland firefighting training this week — a total of five exercises set up for different stations and shifts. Typically, firefighters would take this time to train in the wildland-urban interface, designing situations around protecting homes and neighborhoods, but officials decided to return to fundamentals this year.
“We’d normally be focusing on fire in and around homes,” said Kyle Iseminger, a wildfire specialist with Summit Fire. “We’d be in a neighborhood, triaging structures. … For this one, we’re focusing on some basic skills from our initial class, and it’s just basic line construction; it’s using your saws and just wrapping a fire with fire line.”
Firefighters were presented with a mock wildfire scenario, wherein a small fire broke out in a wooded area, and they were asked to stop the invisible blaze. To keep things somewhat realistic, one team arrived on scene first, came up with a game plan and helped to instruct more units as they arrived behind them. To further add to the authenticity, firefighters also got reports of spot fires breaking out in the area and had to drop what they were doing to go engage the new flames.
The first firefighters on scene begin by establishing the LCES: setting a lookout, making sure communications are up and running, and identifying escape routes and safety zones. From there, firefighters used a classic anchor, flank and pinch technique.
Firefighters identify the back of the fire — called the heel — find an anchor point that would be difficult for the fire to move back across, and slowly work their way up the sides of the burning area creating containment lines, which eventually will come together and pinch off the blaze on the other side.
Individuals with chain saws — called sawyers — take the lead, buzzing their way through trees, saplings, grass and other debris. A “swamper” comes in next, picking up the chopped debris and tossing it over the line away from the fire. A group of firefighters will then move their way up the line one by one scraping away at the ground until they’ve reached mineral soil, each building on the work of the firefighter in front of them until the line is clear of any vegetation that could allow a flame to cross over to the other side. Finally, firefighters will unravel hose throughout the entire length of the fire lines, and spray down the dirt and nearby vegetation.
It took firefighters about an hour to cut and dig their way from end to end, creating two containment lines that ended on the Blue River Bikeway more than 300 feet away from the starting point.
The work is methodical and arduous in the heat — even without an actual fire burning nearby — but firefighters say it’s a good refresher to help them prepare mentally and physically for the real thing.
“I wouldn’t say we get rusty, but maybe the calluses get a little softer,” Lt. Steven Wantuck of Summit Fire said. “For those of us that go out on deployments a lot in California, this is the preseason. Just like professional football players or whatever, they’ve got to get back in that mindset again. … To actually get out here and feel the weight of your pack, your tool in the dirt, the smell of the dirt, flow some water, build a good sweat — that gets your mind thinking it’s fire season again.”
The training also ensures the county’s fire protection districts are familiar with each other and able to work together efficiently on a real fire when the need arises. Officials said all firefighters going through basic wildland training courses are taught the same verbiage and tactics, so communication is easy whether they’re working with firefighters from down the road or across the country.
Training also allows individuals who have been promoted to new ranks over the past year to practice their updated responsibilities, and to help newer firefighters learn the ropes in a less-stressful environment.
“You can only read so much about it,” said Corey Okes, who primarily serves as a paramedic. “It’s totally different to actually see it and actually learn what the heck you’re doing. … There’s so much to learn. It’s like drinking water from a fire hose.”
Overall, the firefighters said they appreciated the opportunity to put in some extra work, and leadership said they were impressed with how the group performed.
“I think it’s been a couple years since we’ve had a training like this,” said Mitch Hanson, a firefighter with Red, White & Blue who helped to design the scenario. “We’re really fortunate that the county provided us with this land above the training center to basically put fire line construction in, and we just want to take advantage of that because we haven’t had the opportunity to run saws and dig tools in the dirt for a while.
“I saw a lot of professionalism. Everyone was working as hard as they possibly could, and having a really organized, methodical means of taking control of that fire. That’s exactly what we want to see from our professional firefighters.”
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