Classes that are a lifesaver
Firefighters flock to Carbondale for wildfire academyBy Katie ClarySpecial to the DailyFirefighters from 29 states gathered in Carbondale last week to sharpen their skills during the Colorado Wildfire Academy.At one instruction site, the road is hedged with blackened scrub oak, torched by the 2002 Panorama fire, a testimony to the responsibility these students accept. “Any firefighter driving through here ought to be forewarned,” said Sandi Ault, an information officer for the Pinewood Springs Fire Protection District.The Alamosa-based Colorado Wildfire Academy takes to the road each summer to bring wildland firefighting instruction to a different region of the state. This summer Carbondale was selected to host 43 classes offered to 1,030 firefighters in attendance.
Sixty-three rookies enrolled in a section of the introductory wildfire class. “There’s all walks of life in these classes,” said instructor Veronica Mard, a retired structural firefighter from Massachusetts.Elsewhere, more experienced crews brushed up on other skills, including the use of power saws. Crews practiced removing hazardous trees from the Lincoln Gulch campground, seven miles east of Aspen up Highway 82. Farther down the Roaring Fork Valley, firefighters-in-training tackled the Introduction to Wildland Firefighting and Introduction to Weather courses. The original plan was to construct a fire line, igniting a brushy area on Basalt Mountain already prescribed for a planned burn. However, a burn ban in effect kept the class a little cooler. Regardless, the rookie firefighters tasted the heat. As one group practiced deploying aluminum foil emergency fire shelters, trainee Gerald Martinez, who works at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument near Alamosa, remarked that two minutes under the tarp was “hot enough without the fire.” The students rotated through stations on the hillside, learning proper handling of tools, water hoses, devices used to set backfires and shelters.Safety is reiterated at every step, Ault said.”Nothing that can burn is worth the life of one firefighter,” Ault said.
No ‘cowboy action’Instructing the rookies were a dozen or so firefighters from volunteer and paid stations across the country. For many of these instructors, including two married couples, they used their paid vacation to come to the valley and teach. Bob and Nancy Kittridge are instructors and volunteer firefighters from Colorado Springs. So far their vacation included “getting rained on and eating MREs [meals ready to eat] for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” but they remain dedicated, Bob said. For everyone dressed in the yellow-and-green protective clothing, becoming a firefighter is a financial commitment. From helmet to boots, the running cost is $1,500 to $2,000. Many, including the Kittridges, paid for their gear out of pocket. While 20-something-year-old men comprised the majority of the introductory class, they are hardly the rule. One group of about 13 firefighters had five women in training. In another, a 65-year-old man was attending. Instructor Mard, the firefighter from the East Coast, said it’s all about a person’s attitude. “Males as well as females need to put gender aside,” she said, explaining that women firefighters can’t expect men to “hold doors open for them.”Part of what the rookie firefighters learned is an unofficial code of conduct. Firefighters work in, and are grateful for, the rain. They follow commands and avoid taking “cowboy action,” for example not lighting “fusees” – flares used to ignite backfires – unless told to.”It’s not an easy job,” Mard said. “It’s a dirty job. People swear, they spit, they chew tobacco. Their mannerisms are less than socially acceptable.
“But firefighters are more respectful of each other,” she continued. Dangers recognizedAfter the rookies took their finals, all that remained was passing the “pack test,” in which each student must run three miles wearing a 45-pound pack in under 45 minutes. Their home agencies, ranging from local fire department to the U.S. Forest Service, will test them.One rookie said once the recruits are “red carded” – or certified to fight wildfires – each will carry a beeper and be ready for deployment to fires in Colorado, Alaska, Washington and other Western states at the drop of a lightning bolt. Matt Welch, 22, of Montrose, a new hire at the Bureau of Land Management, jumped at the opportunity to take the introductory class, paid for by the federal agency. Now he’s contemplating firefighting as a career.As he considers the dangerous field, Welch said his parents “have concerns but aren’t waiting up.” The hardest part of the introductory course? The almost week-long classroom work at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale, Welch said. Added Liorah Crockett, 25, of the Del Norte Forest Service: “There was so much information.”With Mount Sopris behind them and hand tools to practice digging fire lines, Welch said the hands-on instruction is the “fun part.”