U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIORBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
BLM Firefighters Prepare for Fire Season
By Sarah Beckwith, BLM Public Affairs Specialist, Wind River/Bighorn Basin District
The Eco Challenge
Neither the roar of the creek nor the symphony of the early morning bird song could muffle the murmurs of both apprehension and excitement heard throughout the camp. It was day three of the annual Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wind River/Bighorn Basin District fire preparedness camp at Medicine Lodge State Archaeological Site and 35 seasonal firefighters awaited their instructions.
The apprehension was understandable. The previous night, a crew of firefighters had been jolted from their sleep at midnight to plan and execute the rescue of a mountain biker with a broken femur. The night before that, a hiker met an unfortunate demise and required extrication by a different crew of sleeping firefighters. Fortunately, the unlucky victims were played by BLM “actors” and the emergency situations were nothing more than fairly realistic simulations designed as team-building exercises and to prepare firefighters for possible real-life situations.
During more reasonable daylight hours, firefighters constructed hose lays to a simulated wildfire, pumped water from the creek, programmed hand-held radios with provided frequencies, and participated in map-reading and GPS exercises to further prepare themselves. This day, they tested their skills during the fire camp’s first ever “Eco Challenge”. During this timed race, fire crews competed against each other to find their way along a several mile route, stopping at unknown locations to complete various firefighting-related challenges.
At a few minutes past 8:00 a.m., Celina Stewart, working as a squad boss trainee this week, called her 7-person crew together for a briefing. Celina explained to the crew that they were expected to solve their own problems during the challenge, warned them about possible hazards (snakes, creek crossings), and distributed the GPS unit, map, and first aid kit.
“The challenge is timed so we’re looking for speed,” said seasoned firefighter Mitch Volin, “but most importantly, we’re looking for you to complete these tasks safely.” Volin, who works during the rest of the year as a special education teacher, is an experienced squad boss and was mentoring Stewart during the Eco Challenge.
After a mile or so of hiking and a chilly, high-water creek crossing, the firefighters were relieved to find that the first challenge was merely a series of trivia questions. They should not have been. Fuels Crew Superintendent Andy Rothleutner fired off a series of fire history questions ranging from easy to pretty darn difficult. There were some hits (Justin Wolf easily answered a question about a certain fire-preventing celebrity bear) and some misses (The questions were tough! Test your own knowledge at the end of this article). Finally, points were awarded and Rothleutner provided the crew with the next set of GPS coordinates.
The location of the next challenge led the crew across yet another chilly creek crossing, straight up the side of a steep ridge and down the other side. Engine Captain Heath Morgan was waiting with a wildfire scenario that required the crew to deploy its fire shelters. Shelter deployment is something firefighters hope to never have to do, but practicing for this unlikely event is a critical part of wildfire preparedness.
Morgan told the crew the location of the fire and what direction it was heading. The firefighters had to run up a hill to a safe place where they could deploy their shelters. “I wanted to make them tired first because if this had been a real fire,” he explained, “the crew would be tired from running. Having them deploy while tired and out of breath made it a more realistic situation.” Morgan was impressed that everyone performed well, even the eight “rookies” who had yet to take the weeklong S-130/S-190 classes - the basic wildland fire training courses required of all firefighters before they can work on the firelines.
The rest of the day included more map reading, hiking and fire preparedness exercises. All six of the crews did well, finishing the Eco Challenge within 6-8 hours. They also met the paramount goal of completing the challenge safely. The most serious injury was a painful case of blisters caused by a pair of stiff, new fire boots.
When There Isn’t Fire to Fight
Even though the firefighters are now well-prepared to respond to wildfires this summer, wildfires won’t always be burning. As a result, seasonal firefighters will be able to make a huge contribution towards hazardous fuels reduction throughout the district. Projects are planned and/or underway for Green Mountain near Lander, the Brokenbacks, Rome Hill, and Sand Draw near Ten Sleep; Enos, Middle, Deer and Grass creeks near Meeteetse; Tenmile Subdivision, Gooseberry Creek, Cottonwood Creek and Bighorn River tracts near Worland and Greybull; Little Mountain, Devils Canyon and Bighorn River tracts near Lovell; and Breteche Creek near Cody.
The projects include Russian olive and saltcedar removal, aspen enhancement, juniper removal, prescribed burning, and Wildland Urban Interface fuel break improvement. These projects are designed in coordination with private landowners and grazing permittees, various Coordinated Resource Management groups, and various state and federal entities, including the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wyoming Sage Grouse Local Working Groups, Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, NRCS Districts, Wyoming Weed and Pest Districts, and others.
The Jackson Hotshots Return
The Jackson Hotshot Crew will also be able to contribute to hazardous fuels reduction when they return to Worland for their second summer, all the way from Jackson, Mississippi. Worland will serve as home away from home for the hotshots while they fight fires throughout the west and assist the BLM with projects. "It's more logistically efficient and less expensive for the hotshot crew to be stationed somewhere in the west during fire season rather than travel back and forth between Mississippi and the big western fires," said Fire Management Officer Chuck Russell.
A hotshot crew is a 20-person organized crew used primarily for wildfire suppression, fuels reduction, and other fire management duties. They are very specialized and are generally placed in the most rugged terrain, in the most active and difficult areas of wildfires. Hotshot crews are used mostly on large fires, but can also be used for initial attack on smaller fires.
"The Jackson Hotshots are a well-trained, motivated crew that helped us accomplish a great deal last summer," Russell said. “If you see them in your community, please welcome them back and help them feel at home away from home.”
Fire Season Outlook
Firm predictions about the upcoming fire season are always difficult to make. “It’s been a wet spring, just like last year, so there is an abundance of vegetation,” said Russell. “A few weeks with dry weather may really increase our fire danger.” BLM firefighters are prepared for the upcoming fire season, but they count on you. If you own a home in a fire-prone area, take a few simple steps to make your property more defensible. It will increase your safety and the safety of firefighters, too. It will also increase the chance that your home will survive a fire. To learn more, visit www.firewise.org.
To learn more about the Wind River/Bighorn Basin District fire program, stop by the district office at 101 South 23rd Street, call 307-347-5100, or visit www.blm.gov/wy.
Wildland Fire Trivia Questions
|Last updated: 08-12-2010|
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