BRISTOL — Fighting fires can be like a prize fight with a light-weight speed demon or with a slow and steady heavyweight.
Either way, you could find yourself in a ring of fire, according to a National Wildfire Coordinating Group training module.
While fighting wildland fires, firefighters should “prepare to be uncomfortable,‘ said Cadillac-Manistee Assistant Fire Management Officer Ben Wagner.
He’s not wrong. Even just a small taste of training left me sweaty, out of breath and had me swinging a tool I’d never used before in a forest I’d never been in.
Several weekends ago I got to join firefighters and Huron-Manistee National Forest Rangers in wildland firefighting training.
It’s not like I thought it would be a walk in the park when I got the invitation from Wildfire Prevention Education and Mitigation Specialist Debra-Ann Brabazon.
“Wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense, and it is essential that reporters have the tools and training to cover this topic of growing national conversation,‘ she said in the email. “Safety is the No. 1 priority for the Forest Service in wildfire response — and that includes the safety of our media partners.‘
I’d been on the scene of fires before. I knew it was hot, dangerous work.
What I didn’t know was how much training goes into it before they even get out into the field.
Let’s start with online training. It took me back to my grad school days of drinking copious amounts of coffee and sitting through slide after slide of information. It was interesting, there was just A LOT of it.
One thing I learned when facing a wildland fire is everything’s a danger or something you should pay attention to.
Where you’re positioned on a slope? That can be dangerous, as fires usually move faster uphill than downhill. The steeper the slope, the faster a fire moves.
That bush over there? That can be dangerous if it’s a dry fuel for a fire.
The humidity even? That’s something to pay attention to, as the lower the humidity is the lower the moisture level is of that bush we talked about, making it easier to catch flame.
Of course, the weather on the field day part of the training was cold and miserable, a great day to stand outside in the elements for hours as firefighters talked to us about what they do and how they do it. We warmed up real quick though when we later started a fireline.
Angela Harvieux with the forest service broke down what she carries in her pack. Tin for making coffee. Cup. Sporks. Food. Radios. Lighter. Long sleeve shirt. Compass with a mirror. Helmet with headlight. Earplugs. Basically, everything she needed to be self-sufficient for 24 hours.
Also, napkins that she gave me after I realized I didn’t read the instructions well enough for training and failed to notice the line that read “there are no bathroom facilities.‘
Later, after my potty break, we learned how to dig that fireline. It’s where you uncover the bare mineral soil in a wide line to try and stop fires from spreading. I got a combi tool, which is kind of like a shovel with a pick for a haircut. Someone told me it’s the worst tool you can get. Typical.
We also learned how to deploy a fire shelter, this amazing aluminum device that reflects 95% of radiant heat. Because only 5% of the heat is absorbed by the shelter, the temperature of the shelter rises slowly, according to a National Wildfire Coordinating Group publication.
The shelter is a last resort when a firefighter can’t get to their escape routes or safety zones and is going to be overcome by fire.
The temperature in it can become unbearable. Wagner said he had never had to use one, but he knew someone who did and they had tried to knock themselves unconscious by banging their head on a rock, it became that awful inside the shelter.
We were supposed to deploy the shelters by ourselves as if a fire was overtaking us. The gloves I was wearing were too big for me and I’m clumsy anyway, so I wouldn’t have made it in this fire. Luckily, Wagner helped me and “saved‘ me.
Being a firefighter is hard.
Not only physically, with the backbreaking fireline digging and the heat from flames, but emotionally.
As a firefighter you’ll be spending long hours away from home and your loved ones will be impacted, Brabazon said.
“There are no towers in the wilderness‘ and sometimes you won’t have cell phone reception. Life goes on when you’re not there and things might change.
People definitely don’t do this for the money, but for the passion, she said.
One thing that struck me that I wasn’t expecting to learn was the kindness of the people present, between two people offering to let me use their gloves and people always willing to answer my questions and put up with me.
Big shout out to the Haring Township Fire Department firefighters for not only letting me tag along with them, but also letting me use their bug spray, agreeing to meet up with me after training when I foolishly left my camera in the back of their truck and then asking if I wanted to eat with them.
Firefighting takes a special type of toughness: mentally, intellectually, physically, emotionally. Luckily, special people seem drawn to the profession.
“Reflect on what you realized about what we do, the science, the training, the knowledge,‘ Brabazon told me in an email. “It’s a symphony of skills to make a good firefighter.‘