Inside Fire Camp: Part One
Before the start of every fire season, the U.S. Forest Service firefighting division welcomes a fresh group of new prospects hoping to join the team.
Instead of throwing them out on the line right away, the students attend the Black Hills Interagency Fire School at the Boxelder Job Corps for a week-long, hands-on camp. There, the new firefighters get a taste of what the summer will be like — from camping out in cold temperatures to spending hours on the fire line.
But none of the firefighters can work on the line without first obtaining their red card, and that requires passing tests on content taught in camp.
“The first and second-year firefighters, who haven’t seen it all, they’re the ones that are really asking the questions,” said Chris Stover, assistant fire management officer for fuels with the Mystic Ranger District – a sector of the Black Hills National Forest. “So if we can build up their knowledge base, so that they learn the questions to ask, that is huge for us.”
The fire camp starts with 3 days of classroom instruction. New firefighters learn concepts like fire behavior, the chain of command, and of course, the importance of preparedness and safety.
“They emphasized a lot, if you see something dangerous, don’t be afraid to speak up about it or ask questions if you don’t know,” said Walter Bordewyk, a student at the 2017 Black Hills Interagency Fire School. “Emphasizing that two-way communication, I think that was a really big thing that I didn’t think about.”
Stover, who was one of several instructors at the camp, stressed the importance of knowing your surroundings when fighting wildfires.
“If you don’t have situational awareness, you can get in trouble in a big way,” he said. “So, I think that’s probably the most important thing we’re doing.”
That message, he said, is key, because a lapse in situational awareness can turn an already risky job into a crisis.
“You hear about all these people that have been doing it for years, these elite hot shot crews, that you know, just something small went wrong, and they’re gone now,” Bordewyk said.
Take the Yarnell Hill Fire outside Yarnell, Ariz., in 2013. Nineteen Granite Mountain Hot Shots, a hand crew consisting of highly-trained wildland firefighters, died when a shift in winds changed the fire’s path toward them.
This tragedy, in addition to several others referenced in the class, highlights the importance of firefighter safety.
“Those stories, they really bring a human element to it,” said Robert Cota, assistant fire management officer for the Boxelder Job Corps, who also served as the fire school’s incident commander. “We’re not trying to scare anybody. We’re just trying to keep it so they have a knowledge and something of what to expect of what could happen, and maybe they can avoid that situation.”
That’s why every firefighter carries an incident response pocket guide. Ten standard practices and 18 watch out situations are listed on the back cover — all derived from an incident gone wrong.
“I don’t really like to sugarcoat stuff so much. I just want to try to present the facts as best as I know them, so that a person can be as well-informed as they can be,” Stover said.
It appears the message was well-received by the students, too.
“I think it’s important to remember that and keep that in mind, and learn from those things that happened,” said Bordewyk.