Inside Fire Camp: Part Three

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NEMO, S.D. -

Without using real flames, camp leaders set up a mock fire to give us as real of an example as we could get to bring the lesson full circle.

The exercise gave us a good glimpse of what it's like to work on the line, even if it was only for a couple hours.

“The students go from sitting in class the majority of the week, long hours, and they get to put that stuff to real life,” said Robert Cota, the fire school’s incident commander. “They get to put the tool in the ground.”

When the page came in, we hiked out in our squads to the coordinates of the Incident Command Post, where we received orders for the fire. Half the crews started to dig the fire line, while the other half began laying hose — hoping to flank the fire from the left side.

The real-life exercise gives these firefighter prospects a true example of what it’s like on a real wildfire, Cota said.

“They get dusty, they get dirty, they get tired,” he said. “They know what fatigue feels like. So, it gives them real respect for their physical fitness.”

With instructors watching, we put our days of training to the test. Each hand crew member taking a swing, then a step, and repeating the process.

It’s an interesting scenario for the students, because it shows why they have certain protocol for digging line. With a lot of hands, one swing is plenty, as the several crew members behind will only expand the line to where it needs to be. During the mock fire, squad boss trainees repeatedly directed students to “take less”, or swing less, because they were doing too much work.


About two hours later, when both hand crews met atop the hill, the ends of the line meeting together —we had the mock fire contained. The brief test developed a new perspective on wildland firefighting for the students, including Walter Bordewyk.

“I have a lot more respect for wildfire and how dangerous it can be, and also respect for the job,” Bordewyk said. “It’s not just out there cruising looking at big giant fire flames. There’s a lot of danger and a lot of hard work involved.”

The announcement of containment was met with smiles — most of us hoping to catch our breath, but it also marked the end of an important hill to climb in fire camp, both literally and figuratively. We realized we now know how to fight wildfires.

“I feel more confident in myself that if I do get put out on a line, that I’ll be able to handle it,” said Theresa Schaffner, a student in camp. “I’ll know what’s expected of me and what attitude I need to have to be a part of a crew.”

And the evolution of all students was visible at the end of the mock fire, Cota said.

“I saw was a great culmination of the week,” he said. “It’s amazing at how far you can come in five days.”

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