The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
Mar. 25—Instructors at the Colorado Wildland Fire and Incident Management Academy took advantage of mild Friday temperatures with an outdoor field day at the campus of University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
The outing came after four days of classroom instruction in Basic Firefighting Training and Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior, two classes taught in conjunction with one another.
“We like to teach the Fire Behavior portion first,” said instructor Tyler Campbell. “We teach them what the fire is going to do, and then we teach them how to fight it. It’s harder to do in reverse.”
Nearly two dozen students — most of them inexperienced at wildland firefighting — hauled digging equipment and heavy supply packs into a wooded area of the campus to get a real-world feel for the demands of containing a fast-spreading blaze without water.
“Nine times out of ten, we’re out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s a 5-mile hike into the fire,” said Campbell, a veteran firefighter. “Even if we had a water source close by, we’d have to run hundreds of feet of hose over uneven terrain.”
The morning was dedicated to the basic skills of fire containment. Students worked at weather assessment, fire line digging, gridding (checking for embers and hot spots) and fire shelter deployment.
Weather assessment is a critical skill in wildland firefighting, Campbell said.
“Weather is the biggest contributing factor to how quickly a fire spreads,” he said. “So the big things we focus on are the weather, topography, and the fuels themselves. A good firefighter has to be an amateur meteorologist.”
Digging a fire line — essentially a trench several feet wide — is the most effective way to stop a wildland blaze from growing. It’s physically taxing work, and it takes teamwork and practice.
“In order to dig a line in an efficient, and hopefully fast-paced manner, there has to be a lot of teamwork involved,” said Linda Austin, an engine captain with the U.S. Fire Service. “It takes time to develop a rhythm. That’s what the students were working on today.”
Each student carried a pack loaded with essential survival items including food, first aid kits, radios, and other supplies to sustain a firefighter through a day that could last as long as 16 hours.
“Traditionally, when we’re fighting a wildland fire, we’ll work 16-hour days, for 14 days straight,” Campbell said. “Then we’ll have a couple days off, and come back and do it again.”
But there’s one piece of equipment that firefighters hope never to have to use, instructors said.
A fire shelter is essentially a tent made of fiberglass and aluminum foil, designed to reflect heat and provide a certain amount of breathable air. It’s the firefighter’s last-ditch survival mechanism.
“If your escape route’s been cut off, the fire is coming at you, and you have nowhere to go, you’ll have to deploy your shelter — and you’re going to have to do it fast,” said Austin, who was part of a crew that fought the Cameron Peak fire.
“It’s basically tin foil and plastic, so there’s only so much it can do,” Campbell added. “But we do some training with it, because (the students) need to know how to deploy it effectively. They just hope they will never need it.”
After a brief lunch break, students went back to work, utilizing all their newfound classroom and field knowledge in a drill that simulated a 5-acre fire scenario. While no simulation can match the intensity of wildfire, the instructors worked to make the course as realistic as possible.
Some of the students had prior structural firefighting experience, but they quickly learned that wildland firefighting is an entirely different discipline.
“When you’re fighting a structure fire, you have a lot of resources readily available,” Said William Klausmeyer, a volunteer firefighter in San Luis Valley. “You’ve got fire hydrants, hoses, breathing equipment, and almost endless amounts of water. Out here, you don’t have any of those things.”
Airman 1st Class Kyion Eleonora, a firefighter at the Air Force Academy, said he found the experience eye-opening.
“(Wildland firefighting) is a different way of thinking,” he said. “You’re taught, as a structural firefighter, to fight a fire with water. Out here, you’re fighting it with your mind, your tools and your teammates.”
Upon completion of the two courses, the students will be qualified to join a wildland crew at the basic level, Campbell said.
“They’ll be able to work on an engine or a crew, under experienced supervision,” he said.
Eleonora said the course has broadened the potential avenues of his budding firefighting career.
“(Firefighting) is the only job I’ve ever wanted. You’re helping your community in a real way,” he said. “Besides, everyone loves firefighters.”