|At the beginning of the pack test during the wildland fire fighter training session last Friday, Alex Crawford steps ahead at the CEU track, trailed by Brian Gilson, Mike Wicks, Carl Ivory and Norbert Lee.|
Wildland fire fighters have to carry 45 pounds on their backs while they walk at a rapid pace around a track for almost 45 minutes.
The fire fighters have to learn to wrap themselves up in what amounts to an aluminum foil bag that is packed in a hard plastic case and get on the ground without arms and legs sticking out in 20 seconds.
The emergency response personnel have to keep in mind that, at anytime while at work in the field, the crews may have to make a run from a violent force that can sweep people up in smoke and heat at 75 miles per hour.
Every year, wildland fire fighters face numerous dangers battling to protect forests, rangelands and private structures from the ravages of fast-paced blazes that seem to be appearing with greater intensity and at higher frequency.
Last week, the emergency wildfire personnel spent a day training at the College of Eastern Utah track and the United States Bureau of Land Management facility in Price.
"It takes some special people to do this," said Hal Stevens as he timed veteran and rookie fire fighters doing qualifying laps around the track. Stevens, a fuel technician two, currently heads the fire personnel at the BLM in the Carbon County area.
"Everyone who works on the fire line has to do this sometime each year to qualify," he pointed out.
Stevens will be doing the 45-pound track carry next week during a regional fire training session in Richfield. Neither age, experience nor prior training exempts individuals who operate on fire lines from the test.
"Whoa, that vest is a little heavier than I remember," commented Rudy Sandoval, fire warden for Carbon and Emery counties, as he picked up one of the packs before the timed trials.
On the line at the start were people ranging in age from the early 20s to more than 40. Wildland fire fighting is a game of physical fitness, not only to get the job done, but to also survive.
Following the track test, afternoon classroom training reinforced the concept.
The 2004 training focused on reinforcing the need to "Expect the Unexpected." Range and forest fires are unpredictable and many people manning the lines have paid the price with their lives by not respecting the power of fire or not being prepared when situations spiraled out of control.
Fire fighters on the line have several standard orders to comply with no matter how large the blaze. The standing directives include:
Keeping informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts.
Knowing what a fire is doing at all times.
Basing all actions on the current and expected behavior of the fire.
Identifying all escape routes and safety zones and making them known to everyone on the crew.
Posting lookouts when there is possible danger.
Being alert, keeping calm, thinking clearly and acting decisively.
Maintaining communications with crew members, the fire boss and any adjoining forces.
Fighting the fire aggressively after having provided for safety first.
When fire fighters die in action on the line it almost always makes national news. That's serious for the public, but it is like losing a family member to wildland fire personnel. The main part of all training includes safety.
During the training on Friday attendees went through a number of exercises that help them to make team decisions about situations they could face.
Each exercise concentrates not only on fighting the fire described, but how to do it safely.
But what about when things go bad? What about if a crew is on the fire line and suddenly finds themselves surrounded by a raging blaze? That's where the aluminum foil bags come in. Actually they are called fire shelters and they are carried by everyone who has anything to do with a fire zone. However, they are a last resort, because despite the fact they have saved the lives of over 250 fire fighters over the years, they will not protect fire personnel under all conditions.
The shelters utilize aluminum to reflect 95 percent of a fires radiant heat. The protection also utilizes the cooling effects of the ground to protect the trapped individual. However temperatures in the shelter can still reach 150 degrees, but fire personnel are trained to breathe through the mouth close to the ground, where the temperature is much lower.
Where a shelter is pitched is imperative. It must be in areas that won't be exposed to direct flame, because the temperatures of wild land fires can average 1600 degrees and the aluminum on the shelter will melt at 1200 degrees. In particular, fire personnel are taught to put the shelter as far from fuels as possible.
It has been found that most wildland fire fighting deaths are caused by the heat, not by getting directly burned. Above all, personnel are told to stay in their shelters once they are in them, regardless of what happens in the surrounding area.
Personnel are taught to deploy and use their shelters in a number of scenarios including while standing up and then lying on the ground, deploying while lying on the ground, deploying in a strong wind (often wind is created by fires) and how to lie in the shelter to protect themselves.
"Never use having a shelter for protection to make decisions about how to fight a fire," Stevens told the group. "It is not available so people can take chances."
Stevens also pointed out that sometimes people think that nothing happens around Carbon County that would require anyone to worry about the use of a shelter. But that's just not true.
"Remember the Price Canyon fire a couple of years ago?" he reminded those in the room. "Two smoke jumpers who went on that fire had to deploy their shelters when they became entrapped. It can happen anywhere."
In the final exercise of the day, the group, which not only consisted of fire fighters, but anyone who might work in a fire camp or drive vehicles around the fire area, learned to deploy practice shelters, made of plastic, on the front lawn of the BLM.
While there was a light-hearted atmosphere about the exercise on the nice soft green grass, everyone also understood the importance of trying to do it the shortest amount of time and in a correct manner.
The shelters for fire personnel are much like police officers' service revolvers; they have them at all times, and have to train and practice to use them correctly, but they hope they will never need them.
There are over 30 classifications for fire personnel, for various levels of service from camp worker to smoke jumper, but all are drilled on safety and the dangers that fire can pose to each of them, just as local personnel were last Friday.