Rookies train for coming wildfire season

FAIRFIELD — Smoke billowed from the treetops above the Bear Creek Transfer Camp north of Fairfield, as a group of firefighters staged in a nearby parking area.

“Moving,” rang out, and the circled crews spun into a pair of single-file lines, marching toward the flames.

“Footing,” echoed down the line as the crew shouldered heavy packs and hand tools over rocks and into the trees.

They regrouped just yards from the blaze, “holding” beneath the canopy. A few lodgepole pines sizzled, then burst into flames. Heat surged across the forest floor as the rookie hand crew went to work, digging and scraping its first fire line of the season.

Training for wildfires

About 50 U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service firefighters participated in a field-training day Thursday near the Methodist Church Camp in the Sawtooth National Forest, about 35 miles north of Fairfield.

The hands-on exercise was a culmination of a weeklong program aimed to train new recruits in basic fire behavior and basic firefighter principles.

“It gives them an idea of what a real fire would be like,” BLM spokeswoman Kelsey Dehoney said.

Somewhere amid the smoke and charred trees, a firefighter used a pyschrometer to “spin” the weather. The temperature, wind and relative humidity echoed over radios.

Others continued digging and scraping at the forest floor, trying to keep the prescribed burn contained.

“It’s been a long time since I sucked smoke like this,” Dehoney said.

Learning the basics

Dehoney fought fires with the Twin Falls BLM for four years before working as a dispatcher with the Salmon Challis National Forest for another four. She attended the basic training herself in 2005.

“It was cold,” she remembered. “really cold.”

Instructors walked among the rookies, giving instructions as they fought a trio of prescribed burns on about an acre of mostly lodge pole pine.

“Keep those eyes up, down and around,” “eyes on the greens guys,” and “hydrate,” the instructors told them.

Daniel Flick, of Gooding, stood near a smoldering log watching for flare-ups as others mopped up around him.

“What would you do if this lit,” he asked Twin Falls squad boss Grant Hanchey.

Hanchey responded: “Call it out and communicate it down the line.”

Looking for adventure

Flick said he came to firefighting after working on a Forest Service trail crew out of Fairfield. He thought the job would be fun, he said, and a good way to pay for school.

“A lot of people come here for school and end up making it a career,” he said.

Courses during the week included wildland fire behavior and safety, firefighter preparedness, risk management, communications, escape routes and safety zones.

“They won’t be experts, but they will have the base knowledge to build on” Dehoney said.

For Flick, the lesson that stuck out most in his mind was about working as a team.

“It’s amazing how if you get a lot of people together, how much work you can do in a short period of time,” he said.

Importance of teamwork

Teamwork is what brought Matt Hinners to basic training from Acworth, Ga. He’s wanted to fight fires since 2011, after helping out with a fire while working for Fish and Game in his home state.

“It seems like the firefighter community is really close and has a lot camaraderie and that’s something I really wanted to be a part of,” he said.

This season, Hinners will work with the Minidoka Ranger District.

The training, he said, was a lot of fun, but the fire was “a lot hotter than it looks.“

How much heat Hinners and his fellow recruits will face this season is the “million-dollar question,” Dehoney said.

The Forest Service can and does monitor various conditions to assess fire potential, such as drought, fuel and weather.

“But if you don’t get the starts, that part of it is irrelevant” she said.

One such start ignited the Gold Fire on June 3.

As basic training carried on, the fire burned 80 acres near the Sawtooth Hatchery south of Stanley before it was contained. The early start of the fire season Thursday concerned Nathan Lancaster, fire management officer with the Sawtooth National Forest.

“It burned 80 acres and it’s the first of June,” he said.

Lancaster called the area near the Gold Fire a “heavy dead-and-down fuel model.” A beetle kill 10 to 15 years ago left much of the lodgepole forest dead, he said, and it’s been more than 150 years since it last burned.

“Mother Nature is setting herself up to reset,” he said.